US Air Force tests troubled hypersonic missile

The air-launched rapid-response weapon was successfully launched by a B-52H bomber off the coast of Southern California on Saturday and reached hypersonic speeds, the Air Force said Monday, without giving more details about the test itself, such as the duration of the flight or its altitude.

“This was a major accomplishment for the ARRW team, for the arms company and our Air Force,” said Brig. Gen. Heath Collins, director of the Air Force weapons program.

The ARRW is a hypersonic weapon that uses a booster rocket to accelerate the missile to speeds in excess of Mach 5, five times the speed of sound. A hypersonic glide vehicle then separates from the booster and glides at high speed toward its target.

The Air Force has struggled with testing the AGM-183A ARRW in the past, and the program suffered three flight test failures before this latest success. Last month, the Air Force said flight test anomalies had pushed back the weapon’s completion schedule. The first full test of the missile and booster rocket has been delayed until the next exercise, which begins in October.

A day before this test, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall acknowledged the problems with the ARRW program.

“The program has not been successful so far in research and development,” Kendall told the House Appropriations subcommittee for defense. “We want to see evidence of success before we make the decision to commit to production, so we’ll wait and see.”

The Pentagon has placed greater emphasis on developing hypersonic weapons after lawmakers raised concerns that the United States was falling behind Chinese and Russian programs. Last year, China successfully tested a hypersonic weapon that circled the globe before hitting its target. More recently, Russia became the first nation to use hypersonic weapons in wartime when it launched its Iskander and Kinzhal missiles at Ukraine. The Pentagon said Russia has used between 10 and 12 hypersonic weapons since its invasion of Ukraine began.

In mid-March, the United States successfully tested its hypersonic air-breathing weapon (HAWC) concept, but kept it quiet to avoid escalating tensions with Russia while President Joe Biden was on about to go to Europe.

The HAWC was launched from a B-52 bomber off the West Coast in the first successful test of the Lockheed Martin system. A booster engine accelerated the missile to high speed, at which point the air-breathing scramjet engine ignited and propelled the missile to hypersonic speeds of Mach 5 and above.

The test came days after Russia said it used its own hypersonic missile during its invasion of Ukraine, saying it targeted an ammunition warehouse in western Ukraine.

Even with the heightened focus on hypersonic weapons, the Secretary of the Air Force urged caution about their significance.

“What we want to look at is what is the most cost-effective weapon combination,” Kendall told lawmakers. “There’s definitely a role for hypersonics in there, and we need to invest in that and buy them in certain quantities, but there’s still an open question in my mind as to which is the most cost-effective mix. “

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