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Air Force sets upcoming test of hypersonic missile developed by Lockheed Martin

A B-52H Stratofortress carrying AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon undergoes pre-flight procedures at Edwards Air Force Base, California, Aug. 8, 2020. (Air Force photo by Giancarlo Casem)

The Air Force is getting ready for the first flight test of a hypersonic missile, a next-generation weapon capable of traveling at multiple times the speed of sound.

The upcoming test of the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) developed by aerospace contractor Lockheed Martin is set for sometime within the next couple weeks. A March 5 announcement from the Air Force’s Armament Directorate at Eglin Air Force Base indicated then that the test, set for the Point Mugu Sea Range off the coast of Southern California, was “expected in the next 30 days.”

A spokesman with the public affairs office for the Secretary of the Air Force said Thursday that the test had not yet been held, and remains on the Air Force’s schedule. Information on the test will be forthcoming once it is completed, the spokesman said.

The test of the missile will not involve live munitions and is designed only to test the ignition of the missile and its ability to boost a payload toward its target. The missile will carry only a “simulated glide vehicle” that “will not sustain flight, and will safely disintegrate soon after separation,” according to the Armament Directorate.

The United States is aggressively pursuing development of hypersonic weapons, which would travel at speeds that would make them difficult to detect or defend against. That pursuit is in conjunction with a switch in focus of the national defense strategy from efforts to root out terrorists across the globe to a great-powers orientation focusing on “near-peer” adversaries, most notably Russia and China.

Russia and China have recently unveiled hypersonic weapons, although their numbers and operational status are not clear. The perceived threat is real enough, however, to have prompted the Department of Defense’s Missile Defense Agency in January to award separate contracts of more than $100 million each to Florida-based L3 Harris Technologies and Virginia-based Northrop Grumman to develop Earth-orbiting sensors capable of detecting and tracking hypersonic weapons from space.

The Armament Directorate at Eglin is managing the Lockheed Martin hypersonic missile effort under a contract carrying a not-to-exceed cost of $480 million. Under the contract, Lockheed Martin is working with the Air Force to design and develop the ARRW hypersonic weapon by Nov. 30 of this year.

For the upcoming test, the ARRW will be launched from a B-52H bomber flying at about 50,000 feet. The test follows a half-dozen previous “captive-carry” tests of the missile. In captive-carry testing, the missile is not launched from its host aircraft, but the performance of its electronics and other systems are assessed while it is attached to that aircraft.

The final captive-carry test of the missile was conducted in August of last year. That test included practice of operations that will be used in the upcoming launch test, according to the Air Force.

Also according to the Air Force, the August test resulted in the successful transmission of electronic data from the missile to ground stations in the Point Mugu Sea Range, and showed that the missile was interacting properly with the B-52 that was carrying it.

In the announcement earlier this month from the Armament Directorate, Brig. Gen. Heath Collins, the Air Force’s program executive officer for weapons and director of the Armament Directorate, said the booster vehicle to be used in the upcoming test “is complete and is progressing through ground testing to verify its readiness for flight.”

Whenever the upcoming test is held, it will be followed by a number of additional booster test flights and “all-up-round test flights” by the end of the year. An all-up round is the testing of a completely assembled weapon.

The upcoming test will be conducted by the 412th Test Wing, a unit of the Air Force Test Center at California’s Edwards Air Force Base.

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