The Air Force’s Long-Awaited Hypersonic Weapon Just Failed

    A crucial test of a U.S. Air Force hypersonic weapon ended in failure this week when the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) didn’t launch from the B-52 Stratofortress bomber carrying it.

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    The seventh ARRW test, which took place deep in the California desert at Edwards Air Force Base, was supposed to be the first involving an actual launch. The test involved the ARRW’s rocket booster, which is designed to propel the hypersonic weapon to speeds well in excess of Mach 5.

    Although no one outside of industry and government knew the precise time of the launch, observers spotted a NASA WB-57 long range research aircraft and pair of U.S. Navy P-3 Orion airplanes off the coast of California on April 5, suggesting a test was imminent.

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    “The test missile was not able to complete its launch sequence and was safely retained on the aircraft which returned here,” Edwards Air Force Base said in a release. The missile’s failure to launch means “engineers and testers will be able to explore the defect and return the vehicle back to test.”

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    The ARRW is what’s known as a hypersonic boost glide weapon system. The actual weapon is an arrowhead-shaped glide vehicle that sits at the tip of a booster rocket. The booster rocket accelerates the ARRW to Mach 5+ speeds.

    Unlike ballistic missiles, however, the ARRW pitches downward before it enters space, gliding toward its target at Mach 5+. This flight profile ensures the ARRW flies under ballistic missile defenses, yet is too fast for many traditional atmospheric air defense systems.

    arrw edwards afb b52

    Air Force personnel load a ARRW test vehicle during a captive carry test at Edwards Air Force Base, August 2020.

    Air Force photo by Giancarlo Casem

    The Air Force has been coy about exactly how fast the ARRW goes, but interestingly, the service recently opened a Mach 18-capable wind tunnel. A Mach 18 weapon would travel approximately 13,810 miles per hour, fast enough to make it from New York to Los Angeles in about 10 minutes.

    The Air Force wants to deploy the ARRW this decade, and the B-1B Lancer bomber could someday carry as many as 31 ARRWs on a single mission.

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