The Pentagon's Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon Test Failed. Here's What We Know

We might be playing catch-up.
Brad Bergan
A launching missile.The United States Navy

We might be in a hypersonic weapons arms race.

And the Pentagon has confirmed that a test launch of a long-range hypersonic weapon from Alaska on Thursday failed, according to an initial Reuters report.

But even if some U.S. weapons systems are trailing rivals like China and Russia, historically, the former country has closed technological gaps rather quickly.

The US executed a failed hypersonic weapons system test

The weapon may have been the same missile design slated for deployment in the U.S. Army's Dark Eagle, in addition to the U.S. Navy's Intermediate-Range Conventional Prompt Strike weapon system. But we can't say for sure whether this was the weapon, since it happened in Alaska, which means the test could have involved a different booster stack or hypersonic payload, according to another report from The Drive. The failed test took place at the Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska, on Kodiak Island. "A booster rocket with a hypersonic glide body attached failed to launch today during a launch test at Kodiak, Alaska says a U.S. official," tweeted Luis Martinez of ABC News on Thursday.

The U.S. Navy and Army have collaborated on developing a hypersonic weapon since 2017, with ambitions to fire it from ships, submarines, and ground-based launchers. Thursday's failed launch could have been the first attempted launch of a prototype of a two-stage booster equipped with a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle atop, according to Steve Trimble of Aviation Week. Both the Army and Navy have executed tests of the hypersonic boost-glide vehicle before, but with other boosters, he added. In the past, the two services have expressed hopes to start flight testing their jointly-produced hypersonic weapon sometime in the 2022 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. And the Army had already confirmed some of this forthcoming testing would happen on Kodiak Island, according to a local news source.

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Earlier, the Pentagon said it had completed three successful tests of "advanced hypersonic technologies, capabilities, and prototype systems" linked to Dark Eagle, in addition to the Intermediate-Range Conventional Prompt Strike (IRCPS) weapon "in a realistic operating environment," according to another Reuters report. These tests went forward under the leadership of Sandia National Laboratories, which designed the hypersonic boost-glide vehicle. Both the Army and Navy are using this weapons system for the tests, which involved a conventional missile test launch from NASA's Virginia-based Wallops Flight Facility.

The US may be in a hypersonic missile arms race

The Kodiak Island facilities have served as the site for other missile-defense-related testing in the past, so locals with an eye on civilian pilot and mariner alerts know what to look for. Namely, alerts of potential hazards near the launch and impact regions, which were indicated within the bounds of the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, which is a test range supervised by the Army at the Kwajalein Atoll, in the Marshall Islands. Notably, the distance in these alerts between the launch and impact regions was substantially greater than those of previous Army-Navy hypersonic missiles. On this subject, the Army has said only that the Dark Eagle will possess the capacity to strike targets at ranges exceeding 1,725 miles (2,776 km). But the distance from Kodiak to Kwajalein is roughly 4,000 miles (6,437 km).

This failed test comes on the heels of China's recent test of a new orbital bombard weapon system that employs a hypersonic glide vehicle. Later reports said that China had already carried out two similar tests earlier this year. The consensus is that the U.S. is lagging behind Russia and China in hypersonic missile development, which would mean the two have a distinct strategic advantage over U.S. forces, should a conflict break out. But with so little verifiable information about U.S. hypersonic missile tests, the recently failed one could be one step away from leap-frogging this lead. After all, it's happened before on the geopolitical stage. More than once.

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