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US Air Force tests troubled hypersonic missile

By Oren Liebermann, CNN

The US Air Force carried out a successful test of its troubled hypersonic missile over the weekend, one month after announcing the program had suffered delays because of “recent flight test anomalies.”

The Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon was successfully released from a B-52H bomber off the coast of Southern California on Saturday and attained hypersonic speeds, the Air Force announced on Monday, without releasing any more details about the test itself, such as the duration of the flight or its altitude.

“This was a major accomplishment by the ARRW team, for the weapon enterprise, and our Air Force,” said Brig. Gen. Heath Collins, the Air Force’s program executive officer for weapons.

The ARRW is a hypersonic weapon that uses a booster rocket to accelerate the missile to speeds in excess of Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound. A hypersonic glide vehicle then separates from the booster and glides at high speed toward its target.

The Air Force has struggled with the testing of the AGM-183A ARRW in the past, and the program suffered three flight test failures before this latest success. Last month, the Air Force said that flight test anomalies had pushed back the schedule for the weapon’s completion. The first complete test of the missile and booster rocket was delayed until sometime in the next fiscal year, which begins in October.

One day before this test, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall acknowledged the problems that the ARRW program has encountered.

“The program has not been successful in research and development so far,” Kendall told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. “We want to see proof of success before we make the decision about commitment to production, so we’re going to wait and see.”

The Pentagon has placed an increased emphasis on hypersonic weapons development after lawmakers became concerned that the US was falling behind the Chinese and Russian programs. Last year, China successfully tested a hypersonic weapon that orbited the globe before hitting its target. More recently, Russia became the first nation ever to use hypersonic weapons in war when it launched its Iskander and Kinzhal missiles at Ukraine. The Pentagon said that Russia has used between 10-12 hypersonic weapons since the beginning of its invasion of Ukraine.

In mid-March, the US successfully tested its Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC), but kept it quiet to avoid escalating tensions with Russia as President Joe Biden was about to visit Europe.

The HAWC was launched from a B-52 bomber off the west coast in the first successful test of the Lockheed Martin system. A booster engine accelerated the missile to high speed, at which point the air-breathing scramjet engine ignited and propelled the missile at hypersonic speeds of Mach 5 and above.

The test came days after Russia says it used its own hypersonic missile during its invasion of Ukraine, claiming it targeted an ammunition warehouse in western Ukraine.

Even with the increased focus on hypersonic weapons, the Air Force secretary urged a note of caution about their importance.

“What we want to look at is what’s the most cost effective mix of weapons,” Kendall told lawmakers. “There is certainly a role for hypersonics in that, and we need to invest in that and procure them in some quantities, but there’s still an open question in my mind about what’s the most cost effective mix.”

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