The US Air Force’s new hypersonic missile program suffered a blow Monday after it failed to launch from a B-52H Stratofortress bomber aircraft flying from Edwards Air Force Base in California.
“B-52H Stratofortress took off Monday over the Point Mugu Sea Range intending to fire the first booster test vehicle for the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) program. Instead, the test missile was not able to complete its launch sequence and was safely retained on the aircraft which returned to Edwards AFB,” the Air Force said in a statement.
The test failure is a setback to the US, which is engaged in a race with China and Russia to develop hypersonic weapons at a time of increased global tensions. The missiles are designed to travel at a such a high speed that they can fly great distances and move quickly through heavily defended airspace to attack targets such as harbors, airfields and other installations before they can be successfully shot down.
“The ARRW program has been pushing boundaries since its inception and taking calculated risks to move this important capability forward. While not launching was disappointing, the recent test provided invaluable information to learn from and continue ahead. This is why we test,” said Brig. Gen. Heath Collins, the armament directorate program’s executive officer. The weapon is aimed at providing US commanders around the world with “the capability to destroy high-value, time-sensitive targets,” according to an Air Force statement.
The new missile is called an AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) and it is expected to be ready for deployment in the next few years. The test was specifically aimed at demonstrating the ability of the ARRW to achieve hypersonic speed.
The Pentagon is aiming to eventually develop a hypersonic missile that can travel at 20 times the speed of sound in a real world military strike, defense officials say, not far off the speed that Space Shuttles traveled when reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. So far, there have been some components tested at speeds near that.
Race with Russia and China
Russia and China are both developing hypersonic weapons programs and Russia claims to have successfully tested a missile. The US is focusing on conventional hypersonic weapons that are based on ships, land and air platforms. Hypersonic weapons broadly fall into two categories: air-breathing missiles and so-called “boost-glide” missiles.
The Pentagon’s FY2021 hypersonic-related research request was $3.2 billion, up from $2.6 billion a year earlier. The goal is to have hypersonic missiles ready for deployment in the next few years, with hypersonic defense capability following a few years later.
China first tested a hypersonic missile in 2014 and Russia in 2016. Russia’s hypersonic glide vehicle, known as Avangard, is equipped with nuclear warheads and launched from SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to the Congressional Research Service. Russia conducted successful tests on Avangard in 2016 and 2018, announcing in December 2019 that it had activated two SS-19s equipped with Avangard.
China’s hypersonic glide vehicle, known as DF-ZF, has been tested at least nine times since 2014, according to the CRS.
“Among the novel weapon systems China is testing is an intercontinental range hypersonic glide vehicle—similar to the Russian Avangard—which is designed to fly at high speeds and low altitudes, complicating our ability to provide precise warning,” said Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, then commander of US Northern Command, in February 2020.
Gen. Glen VanHerck, the head of US Northern Command, warned in March that the missiles could “challenge our ability to provide actionable warning and attack assessment.”
Last year, former acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said hypersonic weapons “have already changed the nature of the battlespace, much as nuclear technology did in the last century.” Comparing hypersonic missiles to Russia’s launch of the Sputnik satellite ahead of the United States, Modly urged the military to invest heavily in research and development. Even though hypersonic weapons have never been used in combat, he warned that they can “destabilize the global security environment and pose an existential threat to our nation.”