A Monday test of a hypersonic missile under development by aerospace contractor Lockheed Martin through the Eglin Air Force Base-headquartered Air Force Armament Directorate was unsuccessful, according to a Tuesday news release issued through Eglin.
During Monday’s test, conducted from Edwards Air Force Base in California over the Point Mugu Sea Range, a booster vehicle failed to launch from the B-52H Stratofortress aircraft to which it was attached.
Details on the exact nature of the failure were not available from the Air Force on Tuesday. The news release from Eglin AFB, calling the unsuccessful test “a setback,” noted only that the booster vehicle “encountered an issue on the aircraft and did not launch.”
The news release went on to explain that the test missile “was not able to complete its launch sequence and was safely retained on the aircraft which returned to Edwards AFB.”
The U.S. military has been aggressively pursuing development of hypersonic missiles, capable of flying at multiple times the speed of sound, as Russia and China also have been working in the hypersonic realm.
Pursuit of hypersonic missile development by the U.S. military is related to a switch in the country’s national defense strategy away from counterterrorism operations toward “great power” competition with what the U.S. military calls “near peer” adversaries, like Russia and China. The rationale behind hypersonic missile development is, in part, that the missiles can fly so fast that defending against them becomes extremely problematic.
Monday’s test did not involve an armed missile, but was instead a test of a booster vehicle designed to carry a munitions payload. The booster did, however, carry a glider that was supposed to have been released from the missile before breaking up safely in the atmosphere.
The test was part of the Air Force’s ongoing effort to develop the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), which is currently slated to bring hypersonic weapons capability to U.S. armed forces sometime early in this decade.
More specifically, the ARRW is being designed to “provide the ability to destroy high-value, time-sensitive targets” and to “expand precision-strike weapon systems’ capabilities by enabling rapid response strikes against heavily defended land targets,” according to the Eglin news release.
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 late this year.
Brig. Gen. Heath Collins, program executive officer at the Armament Directorate, was at least somewhat philosophical Tuesday about the failed booster vehicle test.
“While not launching was disappointing, the recent test provided invaluable information to learn from and continue ahead,” Collins said in the Eglin news release.
“The ARRW program has been pushing boundaries since its inception and taking calculated risks to move this important capability forward,” Collins further noted in the news release, adding “… This is why we test.”
One positive aspect of the failed test, noted in the news release, was the fact that the booster vehicle was retained on the aircraft, meaning that “engineers and testers will be able to explore the defect and return the vehicle back to test(ing).”
Monday’s test mission was actually the eighth time an ARRW had been attached to a B-52H, although the previous missions were all “captive carry” tests. 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.
Objectives for the unsuccessful Monday test had included “demonstrating the safe release of the booster test vehicle from the B‑52H as well as assessing booster performance, booster-shroud separation, and simulated glider separation.”
Monday’s test was carried out by the 419th Flight Test Squadron and the Global Power Bomber Combined Test Force, both headquartered at Edwards AFB.
As the ARRW program moves forward from Monday’s unsuccessful test, plans call for a number of additional booster test flights. The Air Force had previously announced that “all-up-round test flights” of the ARRW would be coming by the end of the year. An “all-up round” is the testing of a completely assembled weapon.
Tuesday’s news release did not indicate whether Monday’s unsuccessful test mission would delay that timeline.
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