The US Air Force is ordering more hypersonic weapons as the competition with Russia and China heats up.
The service awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin Missiles & Fire Control Monday to develop the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), a hypersonic weapon prototype expected to cost no more than $480 million to design, according to an Air Force press release.
“We are going to go fast and leverage the best technology available to get hypersonic capability to the warfighter as soon as possible,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said in an official statement.
The request is the second such request for hypersonic weapons from the Air Force in 2018.
The service awarded Lockheed Martin a contract for a Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW) in April 2018, just a few weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted about some of the hypersonic systems Russia is presently developing, such as the Avangard hypersonic boost-glide vehicle expected to be mounted on the country’s Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile.
The latest request from the US Air Force comes about one week after China tested a new hypersonic aircraft, a high-speed strike platform that some expert observers say could evade air and missile defenses to obliterate enemy targets with both conventional and nuclear payloads.
The Xingkong-2 (Starry Sky-2) hypersonic experimental waverider vehicle designed by the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics in Beijing can reportedly travel at six times the speed of sound (Mach 6). The waverider is a type of hypersonic aircraft that rides the shock waves generated during hypersonic flight.
The speed, as well as the unpredictable flight trajectories, of these vehicles make them particularly difficult for existing defense systems to intercept. Chinese military experts suspect that the system is still three to five years away from being weaponized.
Senior leadership from the Department of Defense, Missile Defense Agency, Air Force, Navy, and Army all signed a memorandum of agreement in late June to strengthen American hypersonic capabilities.
“The Joint Team requires the right mix of agile capabilities to compete, deter and win across the spectrum of competition and conflict,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said in an official statement. “We must push the boundaries of technology and own the high ground in this era of great power competition and beyond.”
While the Air Force is pursuing hypersonic weapons of its own, US Strategic Command and the Missile Defense Agency are trying to figure out how to bolster American defenses to protect the homeland against the growing hypersonic threat.
“If you can’t see it, you can’t shoot it,” Missile Defense Agency director Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves said in March 2018. “We have globally deployed sensors today, but — just look at the globe — there are gaps. What we are looking towards is to move the sensor architecture to space and use that advantage of space, in coordination with our ground assets, to remove the gaps.”
“Why is that important? The hypersonic threat,” he asked and answered.
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