A new Air Force weapon just successfully reached Mach 5

On May 14, One of the Air Force's oldest bombers tested one of its newest bombs above the sea off the coast of California. The missile the military deployed and successfully tested is officially known as an AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon and is carried by a legendary B-25H Stratofortress (ARRW). The ARRW surged forward after being released, reaching a speed five times that of sound, making it hypersonic.

“The team’s tenacity, expertise, and commitment were key in overcoming the past year’s challenges to get us to the recent success,” stated Heath Collins, the Air Force Program Executive Officer for Weapons.

This stubbornness is most likely due to the ARRW's prior testing failures. ARRWs failed to exit the bomber's wing in April 2021. After being launched from a B-52 in July 2021, the ARRW's rocket engine failed to ignite. An ARRW test was called off in December 2021, with the missile still flying. The fourth time was the charm, according to this latest successful test.

The Air Force is celebrating the fact that its hypersonic missile passed the minimal conditions for a hypersonic missile: it was launched from the jet carrying it, the engine began when it was supposed to, and it achieved Mach 5.

The missile is unlike existing hypersonic weapons, such as DARPA's Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC), which was tested in 2021 and then again in March. Because HAWC is a concept for a future weapon platform, the project's stakes are smaller because its promise is further down the road. The ARRW, on the other hand, is envisioned as a weapon that could go directly from prototype to service and production if it proves to be capable, providing the US with a combat weapon.

The ARRW just needs to prove it is reliable, first.

The ARRW system is designed to feature a booster rocket that achieves hypersonic speed before separating from the hypersonic glide vehicle, which would be the real weapon. The ARRW's test plan called for the separation of the booster and glide vehicles during testing, but as our colleagues at The War Zone pointed out, “It’s unclear if this flight test included the vehicle separation aspect.”

In a press statement, Lockheed Martin, the ARRW's primary contractor, stressed the test system's safe separation from the bomber in flight, but did not say if the glide vehicle had split from the booster during the test. 

“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 Lockheed Martin.

That information, as well as the ARRW's successful release and ignition of its booster in flight, could be beneficial in future testing.

"Significant standoff distances" refers to the ability of the bomber carrying the missile to attack targets much beyond the range of any anti-air defenses. In testing, the B-52 performs this function. The plane is not only a general-purpose bomber, but it is also an antique machine, developed and initially flown when anti-air missiles were scarce. Anti-air weaponry have vastly advanced in the 70 years after the first prototype B-52 went to the air, rendering the sort of bombardment for which the Stratofortresses were built archaic at best, unless battling against poorly supplied and equipped adversaries.

When a B-52 bomber is equipped with a long-range missile, it can still attack targets thousands of miles distant. Making the missile hypersonic shortens the time between launch and fatal impact, making interception and missile defense more challenging.

“ARRW is designed to enable the U.S. to hold fixed, high-value, time-sensitive targets at risk in contested environments from stand-off distances,” the Air Force states.“It will also expand precision-strike capabilities by enabling rapid response strikes against heavily defended land targets.”

If the ARRW missile proves successful in testing, it will provide the US with a weapon that will allow its oldest bombers to strike reinforced and armored positions and structures from a vast distance.

Weapons, particularly those with such a long range and tremendous power as hypersonics, might have geopolitical implications just by being tested. These weapons live in the shadow of current nuclear arsenals, as seen by the delay in revealing DARPA's successful March hypersonic test until May. This might change the nuclear launch calculus of leaders afraid they might no longer have a deterrent against hypersonic assassination.
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