New details have begun to emerge about Lockheed Martin’s two-fold attempt at closing the capability gap presented by new Chinese and Russian hypersonic missile platforms. Hypersonic missiles, or missiles that are capable of sustaining speeds in excess of Mach 5, are widely believed to be a disruptive technology to the global warfighting status quo. Their immense speed delivers a kinetic impact that can exceed that of explosive ordnance, making them extremely powerful, and the speeds they travel at make them nearly impossible to defend against with existing defense technologies.
The United States, who has been focused purely on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency warfare for the better part of two decades, has recently found itself far behind in a number of emerging defense technology realms, but none have such far-reaching ramifications as hypersonics. China’s DF-21D hypersonic anti-ship missile, for instance, has created an invisible barrier for American naval assets around Chinese shores. With an operational range of nearly a thousand miles and its characteristic hypersonic speeds, an American aircraft carrier could be easy prey for the Chinese missile provided they have a well matured and accurate targeting apparatus. A number of efforts are underway to extend the operational range of carrier-based aircraft specifically to try to offset this Chinese advantage. Likewise, new satellite constellations are being developed with the sole purpose of providing early warning for hypersonic missile launches — but there can be no doubt, in order to counter the threat posed by these new platforms, America needs to be ready to field some themselves.
Lockheed Martin, a government contractor responsible for a diverse array of military and civilian programs ranging from the F-35 to those hypersonic detecting satellites, has secured not one, but both Pentagon contracts aimed at expediting the development of America’s hypersonic missile technologies, though they’re not the only game in town. DARPA also has a ramjet-powered hypersonic platform in development, recently slated for testing sometime next year. While Russia’s Kinzhal and China’s newest Starry Sky 2 hypersonic platforms may be further along than their American competition, the claims from Lockheed and DARPA indicate that the U.S. isn’t just looking to catch up, they’re looking to dominate in this new field. Although details remain limited, here’s what we know about America’s hypersonic missiles that are currently in development:
AGM-183A Advanced Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW)
Based on DARPA’s ongoing hypersonic efforts, the ARRW is intended to be an air-launched platform similar to Russia’s Kinzhal, with one significant difference: Lockheed claims it will blow both Chinese and Russian platforms out of the water in terms of top speed. The ARRW is being developed specifically to be launched from large aircraft like the airborne workhorse of America’s nuclear triad, the B-52 bomber, and once launched would use rocket engines to carry it to a high altitude and high rate of speed, where it would then turn back toward the surface of the earth and, in a similar fashion to a re-entering spacecraft, “glide” unpowered at its target — reaching speeds as high as Mach 20 along the way. If Lockheed Martin can live up to those claims, this missile would then by four times faster than even the currently indefensibly fast platforms in Russian and Chinese armories.
Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW)
The HCSW (pronounced Hacksaw) is also being designed as an air-launched weapon, but unlike the ARRW, it will use solid fuel rocket boosters to propel it to speeds in excess of Mach 5, traveling along a more horizontal trajectory and using GPS guidance to bring it to its target. While the ARRW is effectively designed to close with a target from above, the HCSW is meant to fly at far lower altitudes and represents a different type of challenge to missile defense platforms being developed to try to counter the extreme speeds offered from these types of weapons.
DARPA’s Tactical Boost Glide (TBG)
Technically speaking, the endeavor is more of a technology demonstrator than it currently is a weapon that’s expected to enter service, as some of the breakthroughs made by DARPA in this endeavor have served as the basis for Lockheed Martin’s ARRW project. The TBG, like the ARRW, is carried aloft by an aircraft then fired using rockets to propel the platform to high speeds. Then, the payload separates from the rocket body and “glides” at extremely high speeds to its target. The TBG has been under development for years already but won’t see a full-size demonstrator take to the skies until some time next year.
Feature image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force