The Air Force says that it has finally successfully test-launched a prototype of the AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon hypersonic missile, or ARRW. This follows three failed launch attempts last year and comes as the service is reassessing the future of the program.
The Office of the Secretary of the Air Force announced the successful AGM-183A test flight late on May 16, 2022. The test itself had taken place on May 14. As had been the plan from the beginning, a B-52H Stratofortress from the 419th Flight Test Squadron launched the missile over the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California.
Online flight tracking software showed that one of NASA's WB-57F aircraft made a brief flight out over the coast of southern California on May 14, likely in support of this test. The readily reconfigurable WB-57Fs have supported various kinds of missile testing in the past, including previous ARRW flight test attempts.
"Following separation from the aircraft, the ARRW’s booster ignited and burned for [the] expected duration, achieving hypersonic speeds five times greater than the speed of sound," according to an Air Force press release.
The complete AGM-183A, as designed, uses a rocket booster to accelerate an unpowered hypersonic boost-glide vehicle to an optimal speed and altitude before releasing it. The vehicle then glides along a shallow, atmospheric flight path at hypersonic speeds, defined as Mach 5 or greater, maneuvering erratically as it goes. This combination of speed and maneuverability is intended to make the weapon highly effective in penetrating dense air defenses to prosecute time-sensitive and otherwise high-priority targets.
The Air Force's original publicly announced test plan had called for a surrogate boost-glide vehicle to be released as part of the initial booster flight testing, after which it would simply disintegrate. It's unclear if this flight test included the vehicle separation aspect.
Regardless, “this was a major accomplishment by the ARRW team, for the weapons enterprise, and our Air Force,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Heath Collins, the service's Program Executive Officer for Weapons, said in a statement. “The team's tenacity, expertise, and commitment were key in overcoming the past year's challenges to get us to the recent success. We are ready to build on what we've learned and continue moving hypersonics forward.”
The challenges that Collins refers to here are the trio of failed tests last year. In the first and third instances, the prototype AGM-183As did not even leave the wing of the B-52H bomber carrying them. During the second test event, the missile had separated, but the rocket booster did not ignite, causing it to fall into the Pacific. The Air Force had treated that as a partial success since it at least provided data on the launch procedure and weapon separation.
"The test team made sure we executed this test flawlessly," Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Jungquist, head of the 419th Flight Test Squadron and the director of the Global Power Bomber Combined Test Force (GPB CTF), said in a statement. "Our highly-skilled team made history on this first air-launched hypersonic weapon. We're doing everything we can to get this game-changing weapon to the warfighter as soon as possible."
Jungquist's comments reflect past Air Force statements about ARRW being a key future capability, especially when it comes to possible future high-end conflicts against potential near-peer adversaries, such as China or Russia. However, this successful flight test follows the service announcing as part of the rollout of its Fiscal Year 2023 budget request that it would be reassessing the program.
“[We’re] not walking away [from ARRW]. It’s funded in FY [Fiscal Year] 23,” Maj. Gen. James Peccia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force For Budget told reporters during a press conference on March 28. "And then we’ll make an assessment after that."
The Air Force's proposed budget Fiscal Year 2023 does include a "procurement" request for $46.6 million to buy a single AGM-183A. However. the service says that this is actually a matter of accounting and it will be a prototype for continued research and development use. The Air Force had previously hoped that ARRW testing would go smoothly enough to leave some missiles leftover to form a limited initial operational capability with the weapon as early as this year.
“ARRW still has to prove itself,” Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said at a conference in Washington, D.C., in March. “So we need to do that, and we also need to take a larger look at what’s the right mix for the future.”
All told, the first successful flight test of the AGM-183A is certainly a milestone, but the weapon's future remains uncertain.
Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the AGM-183A ARRW, has now issued its own press release regarding the launch.
"The successful flight demonstrates the weapon’s ability to reach and withstand operational hypersonic speeds, collect crucial data for use in further flight tests, and validate safe separation from the aircraft to deliver the glide body and warhead to designated targets from significant standoff distances," according to the release. Lockheed Martin artwork of ARRW missile in the initial phase of its flight, seen in the Tweet below, appears to depict the significant strain that the weapon's nosecone in particular experiences while traveling at least five times the speed of sound.
“The need for hypersonic strike capabilities is critical to our nation and this successful test will help us to maintain an accelerated and rigorous timeline,” Dave Berganini, Vice President of Hypersonic and Strike Systems at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, said in a statement. “Our strong partnership with the U.S. Air Force has allowed us to quickly progress hypersonic technologies for our men and women in uniform.”
“The ARRW rapid prototyping program used Section 804 authorities provided by Congress to significantly accelerate the development and test of this system, without sacrificing engineering rigor,” Marya Bard, U.S. Air Force's ARRW program director, said, according to Lockheed Martin's release. “The tightly integrated Lockheed Martin and government team achieved speed with discipline by focusing on a common vision of providing combatant commanders a survivable rapid response strike capability as early as possible.”
Lockheed Martin says that the plan is currently to conduct additional boost flight tests, followed by testing of complete "all-up-round" prototypes, this year. Depending on how things go, the company says the Air Force could still potentially declare an early operational capability with the weapon in 2023.
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