US Air Force hypersonic weapon test ended in failure after the missile failed to launch

B-52 bomber carrying new hypersonic weapon prototype
B-52 bomber carrying a new hypersonic weapon prototype. Edwards Air Force Base
  • An Air Force AGM-183A ARRW hypersonic weapon test ended in failure on Monday.
  • The booster test vehicle carried by a B-52 bomber was unable to complete the launch sequence.
  • The ARRW is expected to be the first air-launched hypersonic weapon in the US arsenal.
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A US Air Force bomber tried and failed to launch a test missile for a new hypersonic weapon during a long-awaited first flight test Monday.

The Air Force said in a statement that it suffered “a setback in demonstrating its progress in hypersonic weapons on April 5 when its first booster vehicle flight test encountered an issue on the aircraft and did not launch.”

A B-52H Stratofortress bomber was unable to complete the launch sequence when it tried to release the booster test vehicle for the AGM-183 Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon in the skies above the Point Mugu Sea Range in California.

The Air Force had hoped to evaluate not only the release of the booster test vehicle from the aircraft, but also the booster’s vehicle’s performance, booster-shroud separation, and a simulated glide vehicle separation.

Hypersonic weapons consist of a rocket booster to get the weapon up to speeds of at least Mach 5 and a glide vehicle that will separate from the booster and continue on to the target, traveling along an unpredictable flight path.

The weapon’s depressed and uncertain trajectory make it more difficult for traditional air-and-missile defense systems to intercept it as compared to a ballistic missile with a predictable, arched trajectory.

This ability to skirt enemy defenses has made this technology desirable and an area of strategic competition between China, Russia, and the US.

The Air Force’s AGM-183A ARRW is expected to be the first air-launched hypersonic weapon in the US arsenal. The Army and Navy are also developing ground-based and sea-launched hypersonic weapons.

A US aircraft first took flight with an inactive ARRW prototype in June 2019. The Air Force has conducted seven captive carry tests, meaning that the weapon was carried by an aircraft but not launched.

The first booster vehicle flight test, expected earlier, was delayed until Monday after the program experienced a problem the Air Force identified as a “slight bump in the road.”

Brig. Gen. Heath Collins, the Armament Directorate Program Executive Officer, said in a statement on Monday’s unsuccessful test that the “ARRW program has been pushing boundaries since its inception and taking calculated risks to move this important capability forward.”

The general added that “while not launching was disappointing, the recent test provided invaluable information to learn from and continue ahead.” He said that “this is why we test.”

The bomber returned to Edwards Air Force Base in California safely with the booster test vehicle. Engineers and testers will now “explore the defect and return the vehicle back to test,” the Air Force said without revealing when a follow-on test might occur.

The Air Force intends to deliver the ARRW as an operational conventional hypersonic strike option in the early 2020s. Previous estimates were that the weapon would be ready for fielding by next year. It is unclear if that timetable has changed.