THE WATCH staff
The U.S. Air Force successfully detonated a hypersonic missile warhead for the first time, the latest milestone in what one arms-technology expert calls a “national imperative” for modernizing U.S. defense capability.
The 780th Test Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida carried out the ground test for the AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) on July 7, 2021.
Hypersonic weapons are defined as anything that travels faster than Mach 5 — five times the speed of sound. Unlike conventional missiles, hypersonics pose challenges for early detection and interception because of their speed, maneuverability and low trajectories, according to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service. The weapons can deliver conventional or nuclear warheads.
There are two primary categories of hypersonics:
- Glide vehicles launched from a rocket before gliding to a target.
- Cruise missiles powered by high-speed, air-breathing engines, or “scramjets,” after acquiring their target.
The Air Force’s ARRW system [pronounced “arrow”] is a hypersonic glide-vehicle prototype carried by a solid-fuel rocket and launched from U.S. warplanes such as the B-52H or B-1 bombers. (Pictured: An ARRW prototype is secured under the wing of a B-52H at Edwards Air Force Base, California, in 2020.)
The arrow is “going to be able to go, in 10-12 minutes, almost 1,000 miles,” Maj. Gen. Andrew Gebara, Air Force Global Strike Command’s director of strategic plans, programs and requirements, told Air Force Magazine in 2020. “It’s amazing.”
The U.S. Air Force said it will attempt a booster flight test of the ARRW in July 2021, and it also expects to conduct an all-up-round, or assembled missile, test later in 2021.
The People’s Republic of China and Russia have hypersonic weapons systems in various stages of advanced development, while allies such as Australia, France, Germany, India and Japan also are working on the technology. In June 2021, Russian forces conducted drills in the Mediterranean in which MiG-31warplanes carried Kinzhal hypersonic missiles. Russia also has built the nuclear-armed Avangard hypersonic missile.
Most U.S. hypersonic weapons programs are not being designed for use with nuclear warheads.
The conventional hypersonic missiles “function like nearly invisible power drills” whose kinetic energy at impact make them “powerful enough to penetrate any building material or armored plating with the force of three to four tons of TNT,” according to a 2019 story in The New York Times Magazine.
“It’s a national imperative, in my mind, that we move forward and deliver our warfighters this capability,” Mike White, director of hypersonics in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, told the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
President Joe Biden’s U.S. $715 billion budget request for the Department of Defense, which was sent to Congress in May 2021, includes U.S. $3.8 billion for hypersonic systems across the service branches.
“It’s important that we have that capability,” Vice Adm. Jon Hill, director of the Missile Defense Agency, told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee in June 2021, “because the hypersonic threat is there now.”