The U.S. Just Racked Up Two Successful Hypersonic Missile Tests

After some high-profile setbacks, U.S. hypersonic testing delivers some very good news.

byEmma Helfrich|
ARRW photo


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, says it has completed the first successful demonstration of the Operational Fires program's ground-launched hypersonic missile system capability. The announcement comes right on the heels of the U.S. Air Force disclosing a second consecutive successful test of its Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW, hypersonic missile booster, which took place yesterday.

A press release from DARPA today explained that the Operational Fires (OpFires) program test was executed at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The DARPA release claims that the system met all of its pre-established test objectives. This included the inaugural use of a U.S. Marine Corps 10-wheel Logistics Vehicle System Replacement (LVSR) truck as a medium-range missile launcher, as well as the demonstration of missile canister egress, stable flight capture, and use of U.S. Army inventory artillery fire control systems to initiate the test mission. All of those steps can be seen demonstrated and annotated in the video of the test included below that DARPA released with the announcement.

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The test was conducted in cooperation with lead contractor Lockheed Martin. The complete system includes components from other companies, such as a rocket booster that is designed and supplied by Northrop Grumman. That very rocket booster, paired with the unpowered hypersonic boost-glide vehicle warhead fitted to the top, is then used to propel the boost-glide vehicle until it reaches the intended speed and altitude. Once the parameters are met, the vehicle detaches from the booster and glides along its atmospheric flight path on its way to engage the target at hypersonic speed. While the speed is certainly notable, so is the boost-glide vehicle's relatively level flight trajectory and its ability to maneuver significantly while flying along that path.

Diagram of an OpFires hypersonic missile launch. DARPA

The announcement made by DARPA revealed that this entire process was executed successfully during the test and that other program elements were also validated, including the first stage rocket motor, missile canister, and missile round pallet (MRP). According to the release, the implementation of a palletized launcher is meant to eliminate the need for a custom-built OpFires transporter erector launcher (TEL). This will allow the missile to be ground-launched from other suitable U.S. military trucks beyond the LVSR, which is a goal of the OpFires program. In its press release, DARPA specifically mentioned Army logistics vehicles as future launch platforms, which could include the service's Palletized Load System trucks, a design related to the Marine Corps' LSVR.

A Lockheed Martin rendering of the OpFires launcher installed on a Marine Corps LVSR truck. Lockheed Martin

“This is a promising step toward a TEL on-demand capability for accurately firing medium-range missiles from highly agile, readily available logistics trucks that are already in both the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps inventory,” said Lt. Col. Joshua Stults, the DARPA program manager for OpFires. “Our successful agile hardware development approach prioritizes full-scale flight testing that will inform further design maturation this year.”

A photo taken during the recently announced OpFires test. DARPA

It is also worth noting that the medium-range OpFires weapon is essentially one tier down from the Army's intermediate-range Dark Eagle hypersonic weapon. Dark Eagle is a longer-range ground-launched hypersonic weapon that also uses a boost-glide vehicle, but one with a different design from that of OpFires, as you can read more about here.

OpFires wasn't the only program to reach a hypersonic milestone, though. On July 12, the Air Force conducted the AGM-183A ARRW booster test designated as Flight-3 off the coast of Southern California, according to a press release shared by Eglin Air Force Base. The service said that this is the twelfth overall flight for the program, although the majority of these were so-called captive carry tests where the test article stayed attached to the aircraft the entire time and was never intended to be released in any way. 

Lockheed Martin rendering of the ARRW on a B-52H Stratofortress. Lockheed Martin

This most recent test acts as the third release demonstration and the second successful booster test in a row to be completed by the Air Force. A previous one conducted in July 2021 was later identified as only a partial failure after the rocket booster failed to ignite and caused the missile to fall into the Pacific ocean. Beneficial data from the launch was nonetheless collected, which resulted in the Air Force regarding it as a half-success. The most recent test, however, is said to have reached hypersonic speeds and that primary and secondary objectives were met.

"This was another important milestone for the Air Force's first air-launched hypersonic weapon,” said Brig Gen. Heath Collins, program executive officer of the armament directorate. “The test successfully demonstrated booster performance expanding the operational envelope. We have now completed our booster test series and are ready to move forward to all-up-round testing later this year. Congratulations to the entire ARRW team, your dedication and expertise are what got us here."

A Lockheed Martin rendering of the ARRW missile before it detaches from the rocket booster. Lockheed Martin

Just as the other tests have been, the July 12 test was completed using an Air Force B-52H Stratofortress aircraft in order to demonstrate the weapon’s ability to launch from under the plane's wing pylon and reach sufficient speed and altitude to release a hypersonic glide vehicle. The launch additionally allowed Lockheed Martin, who is the prime contractor for the AGM-183A ARRW, to collect flight data and validate the missile’s capability to separate from the aircraft and reach its intended release point. 

“ARRW is designed to provide the ability to destroy high-value, time-sensitive targets,” read the Air Force’s press release. “It will also expand precision-strike weapon systems' capabilities by enabling rapid response strikes against heavily defended land targets.”

Lockheed Martin rendering of the ARRW glide vehicle. Lockheed Martin

While successful, the recent booster test comes amid a variety of setbacks and failures that have faced the ARRW program. According to the 2022 Government Accountability Office weapons systems annual assessment, the ARRW’s rapid and aggressive prototyping effort has led to “delayed interim milestones” that have prompted the Department of Defense to consider certain timeline tradeoffs “such as reduced residual capability at the completion of the [Middle Tier of Acquisition] effort.” 

This means that the two failed attempts to execute the first test in Fiscal Year 2021, along with the booster test failure that occurred in the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2022, delayed the entire program by around 11 months, according to the GAO report. Because of this setback, the Fiscal Year 2022 procurement funding for an additional 12 missiles that was requested by the ARRW program on top of the plan to initiate a new rapid fielding effort was denied through the Joint Explanatory Statement accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022. Instead, additional research, development, test, and evaluation funds were provided to support an extension of the testing program.

The GAO report elucidates that the Air Force’s ARRW, which was supposed to be entering production at around this time, is now scheduled for early operational capability sometime within Fiscal Year 2023. All the while DARPA claims that the OpFires program will complete an integrated system critical design review later this year.

However, despite both of the recent tests being dubbed a success, the ways in which either program will continue to progress remains to be seen given the complexities of hypersonic weapon systems. The next step for ARRW will be to actually release its glide vehicle and provide a test that is more representative of an end-to-end use of the system. Regardless, this is a big turnaround for the program, which became something of a sore spot for the Pentagon as it tries to compete with hypersonic developments in China.

We’ll see if the successful tests continue to stack up.

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