The first booster vehicle flight test of a new Air Force ultra-high speed “hypersonic” missile failed this week when the AGM-183 test missile failed to release from a B-52 bomber.
The missile “did not launch” during a test Monday near the Point Magu Sea Range close to Oxnard, California, the Air Force said in a statement Tuesday. The B-52 took off from the range base and was to fire the booster designed as the propulsion unit for what the military calls the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW.
“Instead, the test missile was not able to complete its launch sequence and was safely retained on the aircraft which returned here,” the statement from Edwards Air Force Base, east of Los Angeles, said.
The failed test is a setback for the Pentagon’s high-priority program to develop hypersonic missiles to match similar high-speed missiles being fielded by both China and Russia. Missile test failures are common for weapons builders and a normal part of the development process. Test failures, however, often give ammunition to critics to dismiss the weapon system as impractical or too expensive.
“The ARRW program has been pushing boundaries since its inception and taking calculated risks to move this important capability forward,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Heath Collins, armament directorate program executive officer. “While not launching was disappointing, the recent test provided invaluable information to learn from and continue ahead. This is why we test.”
Several types of U.S. hypersonic missiles are being developed, with a target production date for the ARRW in the coming months. The ARRW program suffered a failed test in December, but six earlier tests were successful.
The latest test sought to demonstrate the safe release of the booster vehicle while assessing booster performance, shroud separation and simulated glider separation, the Air Force statement said. The ARRW is a glider that is boosted by an air-launched missile to more than five times the speed of sound — regarded as “hypersonic” speed. At such speeds, pressures and temperatures are intense, requiring special materials and electronics.
The glider is also designed to be able to maneuver in flight to avoid tracking and interception by increasingly advanced enemy missile defenses.
The Air Force described the weapon as meant to “deliver a conventional hypersonic weapons capability to the warfighter in the early 2020s.”
China has already deployed its first hypersonic weapon, the DF-17 booster missile equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle. Western analysts say the larger DF-41 also can carry a hypersonic glider.
Russia’s hypersonic missiles are called Avangaard and Zircon. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced last month that the Zircon is ready for mass production and will be deployed next year.
Hypersonic missiles come in two types — gliders like the ARRW that are boosted to the edge of space by a missile and maneuver to targets, and powered missiles that are propelled with so-called “scramjet” engines.
The second air-launched weapon being worked on is the Air Force Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile. The missiles are considered especially lethal in conducting strikes rapidly over long distances, because missile defense systems have difficulty identifying, tracking and targeting the weapons.
The Congressional Research Service said the military has pursued hypersonic weapons since the early 2000s. The research agency said in a report that Air Force Gen. John Hyten said the weapons are needed for “responsive, long-range strike options against distant, defended, and/or time-critical threats [such as road-mobile missiles] when other forces are unavailable, denied access, or not preferred.”
“Critics, on the other hand,contend that hypersonic weapons lack defined mission requirements, contribute little to U.S. military capability, and are unnecessary for deterrence,” the report said.
The Pentagon is spending more than $15 billion on hypersonic weapons and hopes to have the missiles ready in the coming year or two. Hypersonic missile can travel 500 miles in 10 minutes while current U.S. weapons travel that distance in an hour.
Current U.S. systems will be armed with conventional warheads, while both China and Russia are expected to field their hypersonics with either conventional or nuclear warheads.
An Air Force spokesman said last month that “an operational hypersonic air-launched weapon will enable the U.S. to hold fixed, high-value and time-sensitive targets at risk in contested environments from standoff distances.”
The weapon could be ready as soon as October.