The United States Air Force has decided to end its development of the hypersonic AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), following years of issues plaguing the program such as failed tests and funding issues. The ARRW is supposed to be a glide-boosted weapon, meaning that the entire weapon uses rockets to reach speeds of Mach 20 before an integrated glide vehicle releases and heads towards the target. Development began in 2018 with Lockheed receiving nearly $500 million in funding and initial testing proved to be optimistic, with President Trump touting it as the “Super-Duper Missile.”
However, when it came to test flights, all three failed in 2021. Soon after, the Air Force signaled that it had no plans to buy ARRWs in its 2023 budget after already cutting funding to the program by nearly a half. The project wasn’t dead at the time, however, and a series of successful free flight test flights in 2022 raised some hopes that the project could pull through to be the United States’ first serviced hypersonic weapon. Despite this, the ARRW’s latest test earlier last month did not meet expectations and was not considered successful.
Air Force Secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics Andrew Hunter told the House Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee that the branch will not move forward with purchasing the weapon, developed by Lockheed Martin, and the program will officially end following two more flight tests meant to gather data for future hypersonic development.
“While the Air Force does not currently intend to pursue follow-on procurement of ARRW once the prototyping program concludes, there is inherent benefit to completing the all-up round test flights to garner the learning and test data that will help inform future hypersonic programs,” according to Defense News.
The end of the ARRW program does not mean that the United States is out of the hypersonic weapons arms race. The Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) program is still active, with development being taken up by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. The system is an air-launched, scramjet powered hypersonic cruise missile Test flights since 2021 have been more fruitful than that of the ARRW, with DARPA planning on expanding the project through its “More Opportunities with HAWC program” (MOHAWC). Timelines for serviceability remain unknown at this time.
The failure of the ARRW program highlights the United States’ struggles in the global hypersonic weapons arms race. To date, the United States does not have any serviceable hypersonic weapons that have been implemented in its armed forces outside of testing. Due to this, the United States is trailing behind Russia and China, who both have serviceable hypersonic weapons. Every time I say this, it pisses off a bunch of people and to those people, you have to understand that under development does not mean serviceable in the field. Rest assured, there are several ongoing experimental programs still underway, but in the words of the chief executive officer of Raytheon Technologies Corp., Gregory Hayes, “At least, we are a few years behind” compared to Russia and China, although there is a question of their quality and reliability.
According to the Congressional Research Service, “Funding for hypersonic weapons has been relatively restrained in the past; however, both the Pentagon and Congress have shown a growing interest in pursuing the development and near-term deployment of hypersonic systems. This is due, in part, to the advances in these technologies in Russia and China, both of which have a number of hypersonic weapons programs and have likely fielded operational hypersonic glide vehicles potentially armed with nuclear warheads. Most U.S. hypersonic weapons, in contrast to those in Russia and China, are not being designed for use with a nuclear warhead. As a result, U.S. hypersonic weapons will likely require greater accuracy and will be more technically challenging to develop than nuclear-armed Chinese and Russian systems.” The Government Accountability Office has reported that funding for hypersonic weapons programs increased 740 percent from 2015 to 2020 with a total of $15 billion not including production costs.
Russia and China are the only two countries that possess serviced hypersonic weapons. There is this notion that in order to be a hypersonic weapon, it just needs to travel at or in excess of Mach 5, which is 3,800 miles per hour, but this is really not the case. The definition of hypersonic weapons nowadays has two criteria, which is that it must travel at or over Mach 5 and that it must also be maneuverable (both vertically and horizontally) within the atmosphere.
So with that being said, there are hypersonic weapons and weapons that move at hypersonic speeds. The latter have been around for many decades and a perfect example would be intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), such as the United State’s LGM-30G Minuteman III, which can travel at Mach 23 (17,500 mph). The reason why most missiles are not considered “hypersonic weapons” is because missiles follow a predetermined, arched trajectory and lack maneuverability within the atmosphere. I understand that the definition is a bit muddy, but roping in ICBMs and hypersonic cruise missiles into the same boat does not do their differences any justice.
There are essentially two different kinds of hypersonic weapons: cruise missiles (HCMs) and glide vehicles (HVGs). In short, hypersonic cruise missiles travel at a constant speed and altitude for the duration of their flight utilizing scramjets (supersonic combustion ramjets). Scramjets are “air breathing,” meaning that they constantly take in surrounding air for their combustion and do not need an oxidizer like other rocket and missile systems. Glide vehicles work by being placed on top of rockets that are launched to a high altitude at great speed, where they then decouple and glide back to Earth. HVGs do not have any propulsion mechanisms that can generate thrust, meaning they gain hypersonic speed from the rockets themselves and can travel at speeds in excess of Mach 20 depending on the rocket they are attached to. HCM and HVG’s speed and maneuverability make them practically impossible to track and intercept. To date, there are no existing methods to shoot them down.
For China, they currently service the DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle, which entered service in 2019. The DF-ZF works like any standard HGV and is outfitted on DF-17, DF-21, and DF-31 ballistic missiles. This HGV was designed specifically for anti-ship operations, which pose a threat to American aircraft carriers if a conflict were to break out.
For Russia, they currently service the nuclear-capable Avangard HGV, which entered service in 2019. The system is launched via ICBMs, such as the UR-100UTTKh, R-36M2 and RS-28 Sarmat, allowing the HGV to attain speeds up to Mach 27. Russia’s Strategic Rocket Force currently employs at least six of these weapons.
They also service the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal, which is a nuclear-capable hypersonic aero-ballistic air-to-surface missile, which is derived from the 9K720 Iskander ballistic missile, but with added maneuverability and extended range. The Kinzhal, or “Dagger,” entered service in 2017 to be launched by MiG-31K supersonic interceptors and Tu-22M3M supersonic bombers. The Kinzhal became the first ever hypersonic weapon to be used in combat during the 2022 Russian Invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s Ministry of Defense announced that their forces used a Kinzhal to destroy a Ukrainian weapons depot in Ivano-Frankivsk on March 18. Speaking about the strike, United States President Joe Biden stated that it is “almost impossible to stop it… There’s a reason they’re using it.”
To wrap this up, I just want to address how important hypersonic weapons will be for the future of warfare. Since there is no way to currently intercept them, especially when considering nuclear capable systems, hypersonic weapons are shaping up to be one of the most significant deterrents in modern times. As tensions continue to rise in Europe, Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific, hypersonic weapons pose a grave threat to key military infrastructure. For example, hypersonic weapons could wipe out carrier strike groups and carry out decapitating strikes against command centers and air bases. For China, they have sped up development of their hypersonic weapons programs. In the context of a Taiwan invasion scenario, China could flex hypersonics as a way to pressure the United States to not be involved, or run the risk of losing carrier strike groups in the region, who would be the main target.