US Air Force successfully tests first full prototype of its hypersonic missile

It reached speeds greater than Mach 5, maybe even Mach 20.
Ameya Paleja
Lockheed Martin's Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon
Lockheed Martin's Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon

LockheedMartin/ Twitter 

The U.S. Air Force has successfully completed the test of its full prototype operational hypersonic missile at the Elgin Air Force Base off the Southern California coast on December 9, a press release said. The hypersonic missile, dubbed Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), met all objectives of the test flight.

Designed and developed by Lockheed Martin, ARRW, an air-to-ground missile, is a boost-glide vehicle that can strike "fixed, high-value and time-sensitive targets", as per the press release. The missile can be carried under the wing of an aircraft such as the B-52 bomber. When fired, a solid rocket booster ignites, lifting the missile to a specific altitude and speed.

At this point, the fairings of the payload open, unveiling a wedge-shaped glide vehicle that races toward the target. Unlike a conventional ballistic missile that follows a predictable arc-shaped trajectory, a hypersonic missile glides down toward its target with a flatter trajectory and is capable of carrying mid-air maneuvers.

AGM-183A ARRW full prototype

In August 2018, the U.S. Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin a $480 million contract to develop the hypersonic weapon. Although testing began as early as 2019, preliminary flight tests did not go as planned.

Last year, Interesting Engineering reported that the missile failed to separate from the B-52 bomber during its first test. The weapon did marginally better in the second test when it separated successfully from the bomber, but its solid rocket booster failed to ignite.

While the warhead was successfully tested separately, it was only in May this year that the missile component performed satisfactorily during a test flight. Although the Air Force does not announce testing dates in advance, the test of the full prototype was expected to be undertaken before the year ended.

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The successful test

It is not difficult to spot a B-52 Stratofortress, and placing a single missile under the wing makes it even easier to identify an ARRW test. Social media users had an inkling of the test being conducted on December 9 when an airplane spotter shared this on Twitter.

As per the press release, the 412th Test Wing at Edwards AFB, California, executed the test flight. While previous tests were focused on booster performance, the recent test included all steps of the weapon deployment, including separation from the aircraft, reaching hypersonic speed, completing its flight path, and detonating in the terminal area, and all were met successfully.

According to the press release, the weapon reached speeds greater than Mach 5. However, the technology used by Lockheed Martin for the ARRW makes it capable of traveling at 15,000 miles (24,000 km) per hour or Mach 20, Space.com reported.