The decades-long “space race” between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union effectively ended in July 1969 when NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped off his spacecraft and left a footprint on the surface of the Moon.
Now the U.S., Russia, and China are in another space race: to develop a new generation of “hypersonic” weapons capable of flying more than five times the speed of sound and frustrating even the most sophisticated modern missile defense systems. And until recently, Washington appeared to be third in a three-country race behind Moscow and Beijing.
But the U.S. Air Force confirmed this week it had completed a second successful test of its an Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) booster on Tuesday off the California coast. The hypersonic weapon in this system is carried aloft under the wing of an aircraft before being launched towards its target. In previous tests, the hypersonic missile failed to detach.
That follows a successful testing by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of a ground-launched hypersonic weapon at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, which reportedly occurred in late May. Both missiles were developed by defense contracting giant Lockheed.
The successes are likely to ease some worried minds at the Pentagon, which has watched as its “near-peer” adversaries have claimed marked advances on their hypersonic programs.
Last year, China launched a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that circled the globe through low-orbit space before speeding towards its target on the ground. The August 2021 flight reportedly caught U.S. intelligence agencies by surprise with Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, memorably comparing it to a “Sputnik moment.”
The test proved a wake-up call for some on Capitol Hill as well.
“The People’s Liberation Army now has an increasingly credible capability to undermine our missile defenses and threaten the American homeland with both conventional and nuclear strikes,” Rep. Mike Gallagher, Wisconsin Republican, said after the Chinese test firing was completed. “Even more disturbing is the fact that American technology has contributed to the PLA’s hypersonic missile program.”
The three nations are each developing hypersonic weapons that fly at five times the speed of sound. Unlike ballistic missiles which follow a fixed and predictable arc, hypersonic weapons are maneuverable, making them harder to track and shoot down with current air and missile defense technology.
The U.S. hypersonic program has been plagued with problems, most recently in June when a weapon failed during a full system test at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii. The mission was supposed to launch the hypersonic missile package atop a two-stage missile booster. The booster is designed to accelerate to hypersonic speeds, then send the detached glide body to the target.
In December 2019, Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed it had fielded the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) payload, said Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, head of U.S. Northern Command. The breakthrough was hailed personally by President Vladimir Putin as a technology that only Russia had.
“These weapons are designed to glide at extremely high speeds and maneuver at low altitudes in order to complicate our ability to detect and track,” Gen. VanHerck said in March during testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
But amid the concerns, there have been some undeniable U.S. successes in the hypersonic weapons race. On May 14, 2022, an Air Force B-52 bomber released an AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, (ARRW), off the coast of Southern California. The booster ignited and burned for what Air Force said was the “expected duration” and achieved hypersonic speeds.
The Air Force conducted a second successful ARRW launch on June 12, 2022. It again reached hypersonic speeds with Air Force officials saying the test met their objectives.
“The test successfully demonstrated booster performance, expanding the operational envelope,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Heath Collins, the program director, said in a statement.
The Pentagon’s DARPA said it successfully launched its own first flight test of a ground-launched hypersonic missile system at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
Rather than rely on a custom-made launcher, DARPA’s Operational Fires program uses a standard military logistics truck to launch the high-speed, medium-range missile. The program also used a standard Army artillery fire control system to initiate the test mission. While Lockheed Martin built that system as well, DARPA officials said it uses a Northrup Grumman rocket motor.
“This is a promising step toward a TEL on-demand capability for accurately firing medium-range missiles from highly agile, readily available logistics trucks that are already in both U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps inventory,” Air Force Lt. Col. Joshua Stults, DARPA’s program manager, called the test a “promising step” and noted that both the Army and Marine Corps have the trucks in their inventory that can launch the hypersonic weaponry.
DARPA researchers say their primary goal is to develop a ground-launched two-stage hypersonic system that can penetrate air defenses and strike critical targets in a timely manner.
Russia also is moving forward with its hypersonic program. According to the government-controlled TASS news agency, Moscow is developing a hypersonic missile, known as the Zmeevik, that would allow its navy to take on the enemy’s largest warships.
“The Zmeevik ballistic missile with hypersonic combat equipment has been in development for quite a long time. It will be designed to destroy large surface targets, primarily aircraft carriers,” TASS reported, citing a source “close to the military department and the military-industrial complex.”
TASS said a Zmeevik missile has a range of about 2,500 miles and could enter service with the coastal missile units of Russia’s navy. In June, the Russian navy carried out tests on another hypersonic missile, known as the Tsirkon.
U.S. officials defend the hypersonic missile program, saying it offers a necessary long-range strike option for military leaders against distant or well-defended threats. But in a July 2021 report, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) cited critics who raised questions, saying it contributes little to U.S. military capability and is unnecessary for deterrence.
In contrast to those in Russia and China, most U.S. hypersonic weapons are not being designed for use with a nuclear warhead. As a result, they will likely require greater accuracy and be more technologically challenging to develop, CRS officials said.
Congress should seek answers to several questions before it continues pumping money into the hypersonic missile program, CRS researchers said. Lawmakers need to be told what mission a hypersonic missile would be used for and whether it would be the most cost-effective means.