The final flight of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and U.S. Air Force Hypersonic Airbreathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) is completed. Lockheed-Martin’s version of the missile features Lockheed’s Aerojet Rocketdyne scramjet, making it the most successful hypersonic air-breathing flight test in U.S. history.
Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapons Concept means that the technology used in its production isn’t intended to be loaded onto fighter aircraft or bombers, but instead will be used as a stepping stone to develop the technology further.
The U.S. already has two hypersonic missiles in development, All-Up-Round AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), which was successfully tested from a B-52H Stratofortress in December 2022. In September of 2022, Raytheon was awarded the contract to develop a Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM). The ARRW is expected to enter active service in the summer or fall of 2023.
The United States has long been behind geopolitical rivals like Russia, China, and even North Korea in developing hypersonic missile technology. The Pentagon has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in researching hypersonics for defensive measures, but as of November 2022, has still yet to produce an active hypersonic missile.
Weapons like China’s Xingkong-2 “waverider” hypersonic cruise missile (HCM) can bob and weave through the stratosphere, maneuvering toward a target at more than six times the speed of sound. The high speed and maneuverability makes the HCM and others like it notoriously difficult to defend against. Current missile defense systems have no answer for that kind of weapon.
A hypersonic missile is defined as one cruising at five times the speed of sound or faster. While the United States’ intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) fit this description, their reentry paths are predictable and guided. Hypersonic cruise missiles, one the other hand, can be launched from anywhere and their target could be anyone’s guess.
Vladimir Putin announced Russia’s first successful test of a hypersonic weapon after the Russian armed forces fired a hypersonic missile called Avangard at the Kamchatka Peninsula, some 6,000 miles away. The weapon flew at Mach 27. Russian capabilities have only grown since.
Russia developed the Kinzhal missile in 2020, which is said to reach Mach 10 under its own power. The Kremlin claimed to have used it in 2022 against an ammunition depot in Ukraine, making it the first-ever combat use of a hypersonic weapon. China parades its rocket-boosted hypersonic glide vehicle, the Dongfeng-17, in national military events. The United States has traditionally lagged behind in this area.
In the past few years, Pentagon dollars have poured in to offensive hypersonic research to the tune of nearly $1 billion a year. The weapons can be tipped with either conventional or nuclear warheads, and are becoming a critical point as China seeks to expand its hegemony in the Pacific region.
The HAWC program’s missile flew at speeds greater than Mach 5, higher than 60,000 feet, and farther than 300 nautical miles. It has been in development since before the global COVID-19 pandemic and was affected by the pandemic’s supply chain challenges.
With this final test, the Department of Defense and its contractors can take the information gleaned and develop weapons like Raytheon’s Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile, a critical step in catching up in the world’s hypersonic arms race.