In a statement, the U.S. Air Force explained that a test team successfully detonated the warhead that would sit atop the service’s new AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon during a controlled demonstration explosion. The test was the first of its kind for the hypersonic weapon.
The warhead’s unique characteristics presented several challenges. “Some of the firsts were the new and unorthodox design and construction of the test arena, the test procedures and equipment, the warhead’s fragmentation data collecting and the post-test data processing to ensure the warhead’s effects have been accurately characterized,” the Air Force explained in the statement.
The Air Force’s blast arena test arena is essentially a heavily padded full or semi-circle designed to catch blast fragments and outfitted with an array of cameras and sensors that track the explosion and are used to gather exact information on the blast characteristics of a wide variety of explosives.
Why This Is Important
The AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon — more commonly called the AGM-183A ARRW, or simply ARRW — is a hypersonic weapon currently being developed for the U.S. Air Force by Lockheed Martin. More specifically, it is a boost-glide type vehicle that, similarly to intercontinental ballistic missiles, depends on a solid fuel rocket-type booster to bring its explosive payload into low-earth orbit.
When at the appropriate altitude, the glide body, essentially an unpowered rectangular warhead, separates from its rocket body and glides down earthward towards its target. “Gliding” is a bit of a misnomer, however — the glide body flies at mind-numbingly high speeds. In the case of the ARRW, in excess of Mach 7, or 7 times the speed of sound.
At these incredibly high speeds, hypersonic weapons like the ARRW present a very difficult target for anti-missile defenses, as those systems are optimized for tracking and shooting down targets at sub-hypersonic speeds. Some weapons, the ARRW included, are also said to be highly maneuverable in their terminal phase presenting an additional challenge to anti-missile defenses.
The Air Force’s latest test success comes on the heels of failure: earlier this spring, the Air Force sought to test the ARRW’s rocket booster during a controlled flight that was ultimately unsuccessful. The missile, mated to a B-52H Stratofortress, failed to “complete its launch sequence,” i.e. it did not separate from its missile pylon.
Though still in its infancy, this latest AGM-183A ARRW test marks progress for the program. The Air Force expects the ARRW to enter service sometime in the early 2020s.
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.