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Does the US Air Force Have a Hypersonic Missile Problem?

US Air Force Hypersonic Weapons
Image: Lockheed Martin.

A lack of clear purpose and several test failures, and limited industrial capacity are concerning factors.

The Problem?

The Air Force Secretary is casting doubt on the United States’ current hypersonic weapons, calling their utility for the military into question. But one of Frank Kendall’s biggest qualms? Existing hypersonic weapon programs are not moving with the appropriate sense of urgency: they’re too slow.

Another issue Secretary Kendall raised during comments given during the annual Air Force Association’s Air, Space, and Cyber Conference contrasted the role hypersonics would play in the United States versus their role for other countries.

“It’s pretty clear to me what the Chinese want to do with the hypersonics they’re developing. It’s even pretty clear to me what the Russians might want to do with hypersonics,” Military Times quoted Kendall as saying.

“The target set that we would want to address, and why hypersonics are the most cost effective weapons for the U.S., I think it’s still to me somewhat of a question mark,” he added. “I haven’t seen all the analysis that’s been done to justify the current program.”

Testing Hiccups

One of the Air Force’s premier hypersonic weapons, the AGM-183 Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon or ARRW, has yet to be thoroughly tested. The boost-glide type weapon relies on a large rocket to bring it up to speed and orbit, then releases its glide body payload. Though ARRW tests are ongoing, the missile has failed two recent tests.

One of these saw the prototype missile failed to separate from a B-52H Stratofortress bomber and remained mated to the plane’s underwing pylon. During another test, an ARRW’s rocket engine did not engage after the missile separation, and the missile entered a free-fall and broke apart on the ground.

Another initiative would see a much smaller, air-breathing missile dubbed the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile capable of launching fighter jets. However, the ARRW’s large size precludes it from fighter launches, at least for now.

An additional challenge for the Air Forces’ hypersonic weapon programs is building the industrial base necessary to build weapons at a large scale. The Air Force could burn through hundreds or perhaps even thousands of hypersonic armaments during a conflict scenario. Building production capacity, however, is a challenge for any weapon program in its infancy.

What Next?

Still, Secretary Kendall remained adamant that the ARRW program would stay on track and schedule for its highly anticipated 2022 production date — if the Air Force can tease out the missile’s previous hiccups. And once Secretary Kendall can establish how hypersonics would mesh more concretely with the Air Force, the flying branch will build them “as quickly as possible.”

Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and Defense Writer based in Europe. He lives in Berlin and covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society.

Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

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