The US suffered a setback in the race with China and Russia to develop hypersonic weapons when its latest test failed, the Pentagon said in a statement Thursday.
A booster stack, which is the rocket used to accelerate the projectile to hypersonic speeds, failed and the test of the projectile, the hypersonic glide body, could not proceed, the statement said.
Because the rocket failed the Pentagon was not able to test the hypersonic glide body, which is the key component needed to develop a hypersonic weapon.
Officials have started a review of the test, which took place Thursday at the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska, to understand the cause of the booster failure.
“Experiments and tests – both successful and unsuccessful – are the backbone of developing highly complex, critical technologies at tremendous speed, as the department is doing with hypersonic technologies,” said Lt. Cdr. Tim Gorman, a Pentagon spokesman, in a statement.
The Pentagon has made developing hypersonic weapons one of its top priorities, particularly as China and Russia are working to develop their own versions. The failure is another blow to the US effort following a failed test in April and comes days after it was reported that China had successfully tested a hypersonic glide vehicle.
Traveling at Mach 5 or faster, hypersonic weapons are difficult to detect, posing a challenge to missile defense systems. Hypersonic missiles can travel at a far lower trajectory than high-arcing ballistic missiles, which can be easily detectable. Hypersonics can also maneuver and evade missile defense systems.
Reports of successful Chinese and Russian test
Over the weekend, the Financial Times reported that China had successfully tested a hypersonic glide vehicle capable of carrying a nuclear weapon. They reported the glide vehicle was launched from an orbital bombardment system. Though China denied the report, saying on Monday that the test was instead a “routine spacecraft experiment.
Defense officials say they are particulary concerned about China developing hypersonic capabilities because they could enable Beijing to launch an attack over the South Pole, evading US missile defenses, which are generally geared toward missiles coming over the North Pole.
Two weeks ago, Russia claimed to have successfully tested a submarine-launched hypersonic missile for the first time, dubbed the Tsirkon. Earlier this summer, Russia said it had fired the same missile from a warship.
Nevertheless, the Pentagon insists it remains on track to deliver offensive hypersonic weapons in the early 2020s, a timeline that seems more urgent with the advances in hypersonic technology shown off by the Russians and Chinese.
“This flight test is part of an ongoing series of flight tests as we continue to develop this technology,” Gorman said.
The failed test of a hypersonic glide body occurred after the Navy and Army earlier this week conducted a series of successful hypersonic measurement tests highlighting the Pentagon’s priority of rapidly researching and testing the weapon system. The three joint sounding tests were designed to collect data and carry out hypersonic experiments from DoD partners involved in developing the advanced weapons.
“These launches allow for frequent and regular flight testing opportunities to support rapid maturation of offensive and defensive hypersonic technologies,” the Navy said in a statement about the trials.
Those tests, carried out at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, provide data for the development of the services’ hypersonic weapons, including the Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike and the Army’s Long Range Hypersonic Weapon.
The US is focusing on conventional hypersonic weapons that are based on ships, land and air platforms.
In April, the Air Force’s hypersonic missile program suffered a setback when it failed to launch from a B-52. Instead, the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) remained on the aircraft.