Florida test was the Army's 'Dark Eagle' hypersonic missile

Further to yesterday's news that the Pentagon appeared to be planning a missile launch, it has been revealed this was to be a test of the US Army's "Dark Eagle" system, which was aborted due to technical issues.
Christopher McFadden
Image of a 2020 test launch of a prototype of the US Army and US Navy's hypersonic missile system.

United States Navy/Wikimedia Commons 

Further to yesterday's news about maritime and aviation warnings issued before a potential rocket test from Cape Canaveral, Florida, more information has come to light. It was indeed for a planned US Army-Navy hypersonic missile test. As The Drive's Warzone reported, military officials have confirmed that a planned test of two "Dark Eagle" hypersonic missiles was canceled yesterday following technical issues. This puts to rest the mystery around the lack of information on yesterday's planned launch but now raises new questions about the program's future.

Mystery now solved

"On September 6th [2023], the Department planned to conduct a flight test at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, to inform our hypersonic technology development. As a result of pre-flight checks, the test did not occur," an Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) spokesperson told Warzone. "The Department was able to successfully collect data on the performance of the ground hardware and software that will inform the continued progress toward fielding offensive hypersonic weapons. Delivering hypersonic weapons remains a top priority for the Department," they added.

The Dark Eagle/Intermediate-Range Conventional Prompt Strike (IRCPS, as the Navy calls it) missile comprises two main parts: a rocket booster and an unpowered hypersonic boost-glide vehicle payload. The rocket booster propels the boost-glide vehicle to achieve optimal speed and altitude. After reaching its desired altitude, the boost-glide vehicle separates from the rocket booster.

After being launched, the boost-glide vehicle navigates to its destination on its own, flying through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds – defined as speeds above Mach 5 – along a relatively shallow path. These vehicles are built to be highly maneuverable and capable of making sudden course changes during their flight.

At least, that is the theory, as the program appears to have some very serious technical issues. The OSD's statement today is almost identical to the one released when the first "Dark Eagle" launch was canceled in March.

"On March 5 [2023], the Department of Defense planned to conduct a flight test from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station to inform the department's hypersonic technology development," another OSD spokesperson said at that time. "As a result of pre-flight checks, the test did not occur. Delivering hypersonic weapons remains a top priority for the Department of Defense," they added.

“Automated pre-flight checks identified that a battery did not activate, which resulted in not conducting the test," Navy Vice Admiral Johnny Wolfe, that service's Director for Strategic Systems Programs, explained at a subsequent Congressional hearing. "We are aggressively investigating the cause of the no test and will continue to move forward with our development and additional testing in support of Army fielding as soon as the cause is identified and corrected," he added.

Future now uncertain

The cancellation of two tests in the same year and problems with one last year have raised important concerns about the future of the Army-Navy program. As of 2022, there were five scheduled test launches, with only two meant to showcase the Army's "Dark Eagle" ground-launched weapon system, as reported by DOT&E.

This is concerning, as the Army had intended to deploy "Dark Eagle" for early operational use before the end of this year, but it seems less and less likely to happen. The Navy announced last year that it plans to test IRCPS on the USS Zumwalt in 2025 and on a Block V Virginia class submarine in 2028. But, given the apparent serious technical issues, it is now anyone's guess if these deadlines will be achievable.

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