The Air Force recently conducted a simulated hypersonic missile weapons test with a B-52 Stratofortress in an exercise that melded the United States’ oldest bomber with the country’s newest missile.
During the kill chain test, a B-52 stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana flew to Alaska and back as part of a 13 hour-plus flight. During the test run, the B-52 received targeting data from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska and used that information to simulate firing the AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon at a target nearly 700 miles away.
A Moment for the History Books
“We were really exercising the data links that we needed in order to complete that kill chain loop, and then get the feedback to the players in the airspace that the simulated hypersonic missile was fired and effective,” said Lt. Col. Joe Little, 53rd Test Management Group deputy commander in an Air Force article covering the kill chain simulation.
The test occurred during Exercise Northern Edge, an annual joint military exercise in Alaska that takes advantage of the state’s extensive training areas to conduct war-games and exercises.
The AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, which you can read more about in this previous National Interest piece, is a boost-glide type hypersonic missile and is also known as the ARRW.
Though the exact details of the missile are unavailable to the public, the ARRW missile is thought to approach Mach 20 speeds and may be highly maneuverable, especially during its terminal phase.
The unique combination of incredibly high speed as well as high maneuverability would make it particularly difficult, if not outright impossible for conventional air defense systems to defend against, as they are optimized to take down supersonic rather than hypersonic threats.
Why a B-52?
The B-52 Stratofortress, a long-range strategic bomber, is America’s oldest warplane currently in service. The Cold War-era design first entered service with the United States Air Force in the mid-1950s, and thanks to steady upgrades to avionics, engines, and airframe improvements, has remained relevant despite being a nearly 70-year-old airframe design.
Arming the aged bomber with the ARRW hypersonic missile may give the B-52 a new lease on life as a quick-response long-range strategic bomber. Thanks to hypersonic missiles’ incredible speed and not inconsiderable range, B-52s armed with the ARRW or similar weapons could in theory remain out of enemy aircraft and anti-aircraft systems and remain effective on the battlefield.
So while the bomber is perhaps the oldest, most ancient platform in the United States military, it likely won’t go away anytime soon.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.