Navy Mysteriously Cancels Plan To Arm Jets With “Screaming Arrow” Hypersonic Anti-Ship Missile

The latest in a seemingly endless line of U.S. hypersonic missile projects, which called for an air-breathing anti-ship weapon to arm the Navy’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet multirole fighter, has been announced and promptly canceled. The service revealed earlier this week that it was beginning research into the scramjet-powered weapon as part of the Screaming Arrow Innovative Naval Prototype program, before announcing today it had axed the project — at least for now.

The original solicitation was posted online on March 2, in which the Office of Naval Research’s (ONR) Department for Aviation, Force Projection and Integrated Defense called for proposals for the development and testing of a hypersonic, air-breathing controlled test vehicle, or CTV, to be named Screaming Arrow. While the Navy said it hadn’t yet decided how fast it wanted the weapon to fly, hypersonic speed is generally defined as anything above Mach 5. 

An F/A-18E launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. The Screaming Arrow innovative aimed to provide the Super Hornet with a hypersonic air-breathing anti-ship weapon., U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sarah Christoph

Today, however, an amendment to the solicitation reads, simply: “The Special Notice is canceled in its entirety.” No explanation was given and there is no way to know, yet, whether the notice itself has been rescinded or the entire program has been terminated. There is also the possibility that Screaming Arrow has simply been given a higher classification and been moved into the “black world.”

What we do know is that funds were to be provided by the ONR starting in Fiscal Year 2021, the Navy saying it wanted Screaming Arrow to include “likely three CTV launches” from land bases that would test the booster, interstage, and scramjet-powered cruiser components. 

The missile was to be small enough to be accommodated on the Super Hornet and be compliant with the aircraft carrier’s existing munitions storage and weapon-handling equipment. Another important consideration was that the weapon would be light enough for a fighter to recover on a carrier deck while still carrying it. These requirements seem to have been driven, at least in part, by Navy concerns that the U.S. Air Force’s Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM), in particular, could be too large for transport on the aircraft carriers’ weapons elevators. That could also explain why the Navy was pursuing Screaming Arrow and similar efforts in parallel to other Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Air Force programs.

The chosen scramjet propulsion typically only functions properly at high speeds, requiring some kind of booster, generally a rocket motor, to accelerate it to operating velocity. Then, the scramjet takes over. Previous applications in the United States have included the X-51A Waverider, an experimental air-breathing hypersonic vehicle.

Following air launch, the Screaming Arrow flight profile required demonstration of controlled flight, CTV booster ignition and operation, separation of the booster from the cruiser, cruiser controlled flight, cruiser engine start, cruiser acceleration to cruise condition, cruiser at cruise condition, cruiser turndown, cruiser terminal phase flight trajectory, and finally cruiser flight impact.

“Within both the Navy and OSD there is a desire to field a near-term hypersonic weapon system,” the solicitation explained. “For the Navy specifically, it is envisioned that Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare (OASuW) Increment Two (Incr 2) weapon be either a hypersonic or near-hypersonic weapon. For OSD, there is the broader desire and a Congressional mandate to develop and bring a hypersonic weapon into the U.S. inventory.”

Should the Screaming Arrow tests have proven successful, this developmental missile could then be fielded in the future to fulfill the OASuW Increment 2 requirement under a program of record, although it might have still faced competition from other candidates. OASuW Increment 1, meanwhile, is the AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), currently fielded by the Air Force and Navy.

LRASM test articles are loaded onto an F/A-18E at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland., U.S. Navy

In order to accelerate the new program, the Navy called for the leverage of existing hypersonic air vehicles and propulsion systems “with limited design changes” to create a prototype representative of a potential operational system.

“The specific use case of Screaming Arrow is Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare (OASuW),” the solicitation added, before explaining that the threshold target set included but was not limited to, surface combatants and capital ships. “The need for Screaming Arrow technologies arises from a capability gap in propulsion solutions for servicing adversary targets at range within a compressed time of flight, which is not achievable with today’s sub-hypersonic weapon approaches,” it read.

A graphic from the solicitation providing the key design elements behind Screaming Arrow., U.S. NAVY

Whatever its current status, Screaming Arrow was not the only scramjet-powered missile project the Navy is working on right now. Last October The War Zone reported that Boeing had won a contract to help develop a ramjet-powered high-speed missile demonstrator for the Navy under the Supersonic Propulsion Enabled Advanced Ramjet (SPEAR) program. Also intended to arm the F/A-18E/F, the first flight of a SPEAR demonstrator is planned for late 2022. Boeing believes that the design will help the Navy identify requirements for future air-launched missiles, perhaps including hypersonic weapons.

Boeing is also active on behalf of the Navy in the hypersonic realm, with its HyFly 2 program, a dual-combustion ramjet-powered cruise missile. In October last year, the Pentagon included the company in a competition to build a Mach 6 cruise missile, funding a preliminary design review and ground testing of the dual-combustion ramjet. At the time, Steve Trimble, Aviation Week’s Defense Editor, said the HyFly 2, like Screaming Arrow, “appears optimized for a carrier-based fighter.”

HyFly 2 follows on from the original Boeing HyFly, a joint DARPA and Navy program that produced a demonstrator optimized for the F/A-18E/F and which resulted in three failed flight tests between 2007 and 2010. 

Boeing concept artwork of a re-engined B-52 carrying a little-known weapon known as Hammer, which bears a striking resemblance to HyFly 2., Boeing

In another program, Boeing is also working with Australia on the Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment, or SCIFiRE, which also aims to bring these types of weapons within reach of the F/A-18E/F. The ambitious program is intended to yield an operationally ready weapon within the next five to 10 years.

In the United States, meanwhile, both the Navy and Air Force plan to award contracts for hypersonic cruise missiles in Fiscal Year 2022, and the Screaming Arrow and HyFly 2 appear well-positioned for the Navy requirement, at least.

Other companies, too, will likely look for a share of this expanding market for scramjet-powered, hypersonic cruise missiles, including Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, both of which are providing demonstrators for the Air Force’s scramjet-powered Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) program. In the past, the HAWC has also been pitched a potential air-launched weapon for the Navy, albeit arming the F-35C Lightning II.

An artist’s concept of a follow-on to the HAWC missile for the U.S. Navy., JOSEPH TREVITHICK

Whatever form a production version of Screaming Arrow might have taken — and of course, still might — the service determined that it wanted the F/A-18E/F to be able to carry up to four of the missiles simultaneously, on weapons stations three, four, eight, and nine. The Super Hornet has now entirely displaced the legacy F/A-18A-to-D Hornet onboard U.S. Navy carriers and, although the service has looked at stopping buying new Super Hornets in the past, it remains the cornerstone of the carrier air wing’s strike fighter community. Indeed, a significant number of Super Hornets are scheduled to go through the Block III upgrade program, which will add a host of advanced features that you can read about in more detail in this past War Zone piece

Currently, the Navy Super Hornet relies upon the aforementioned LRASM as its primary anti-ship missile. While this is an advanced weapon in itself, with the ability to navigate autonomously around threats, even if its GPS-assisted guidance system and two-way data links might be jammed, and has stealthy features to evade enemy defenses, it is also subsonic.

Clearly, hypersonic weapons are a growth area, and not only for the U.S. military. India, for example, conducted a flight of its air-breathing Hypersonic Technology Demonstration Vehicle testbed last September. In the anti-ship mission, weapons in this class offer particular advantages, above all, their speed, which provides the ship under attack with very little time to respond. Even if the ship can initiate defensive actions, there is a good chance that a missile will inflict some kind of damage.

Against the frenetic U.S. activity in this field, China and Russia are meanwhile forging ahead with increasingly advanced anti-ship designs of their own. These include long-range anti-ship cruise missiles as well as air and surface-launched anti-ship ballistic missiles. Hypersonic threats, too, are a growing concern, as is the prospect of a major maritime conflict, especially in the Pacific region.

The reported first test launch of the Russian Zircon hypersonic cruise missile against a naval target, which is said to have taken place last October., YOUTUBE SCREENCAP

With this in mind, it is understandable that the Navy would want to field similarly advanced anti-ship capabilities onboard aircraft carriers themselves, whose onboard air defense capabilities are often strictly limited. While providing the carrier air wing’s Super Hornet with a hypersonic — or at least very-high-speed — anti-ship weapon wouldn’t stop an incoming missile, it would at least help fortify the carrier’s defensive umbrella against surface threats.

Alternatively, if the U.S. Navy carrier strike group was to go on the offensive, a barrage of hypersonic ship-killing missiles, launched from standoff range, layered together with other weapons, including subsonic LRASMs, would make it far harder for enemy ships to survive.

Furthermore, should it progress, Screaming Arrow, or similar air-launched anti-ship weapons, could also be adapted to become long-range land-attack weapons, too, and may also attract the attention of the Air Force.

Right now, confusion surrounds the Screaming Arrow program. Whether or not the program is shelved for good, restructured into a separate initiative, or actually makes a comeback at some point in the future, it is clear that the Navy is eager for a new air-launched anti-ship weapon, and high supersonic or hypersonic speed is a priority.

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Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.