Recently, the US Air Force, in collaboration with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Lockheed Martin, announced the successful completion of its experimental hypersonic weapon’s second and final test flight.
Dubbed the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC), the missile soared for more than 300 nautical miles (556 km) at altitudes exceeding 60,000 ft via Boeing B-52 bomber. Thus, achieving the set objective and had doubled up the initial data from the previous test flights of the scramjet-powered vehicle developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne.
“Affordability and reliability are essential as we work to develop operational hypersonic solutions,” said John Clark, vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. “Both of our HAWC flight tests launched from an operational aircraft and matched performance models and predictions to aid affordable, rapid development of future hypersonic weapons.”
While engineers continuously worked in the program to rapidly develop an efficient and reliable hypersonic weapon, Lockheed Markin said there are also prioritizing to use of as much as “low-cost advanced manufacturing technologies” as possible however, with “extreme durability” parts to cut the overall cost of the system effectively. With this, the company can produce affordable hypersonic systems “at the rates required to meet the urgent national need.”
What’s next? As reported, DARPA plans to further the program by advancing its technological components through DARPA’s maturation program called More Opportunities with HAWC (MOHAWC).
USAF’s Hypersonic Weapon
The hypersonic weapon program kickstarted in the mid-2010s when the Air Force said it would be working with DARPA “to create an air-breathing cruise missile capable of overwhelming enemy defenses through sheer speed and destroying time-critical targets” using scramjet propulsion technology to boost the speed of the missile up to Mach 5 (roughly 3,836 miles an hour) and possibly beyond. That’s like zooming through the skies from New York to Los Angeles within 20 minutes.
The first successful flight test took place in September 2021, demonstrating its capabilities as “a highly effective tool” for the next generation of warfighters. According to DARPA, the mission’s primary objectives include “vehicle integration and release sequence, safe separation from the launch aircraft, booster ignition and boost, booster separation and engine ignition, and cruise” were all met.
During the initial test, they discovered that “the HAWC vehicle operates best in an oxygen-rich atmosphere, where speed and maneuverability” make real-time detection more difficult for existing hypersonic radar systems.
Aside from Lockheed Martin’s version of HAWC, another aerospace and defense giant, Raytheon, has also worked on improving the current HAWC design. The former is also developing an alternative hypersonic cruise missile for the Air Force known as the Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW)—a hypersonic air-to-ground missile that emphasizes gliding—that faced a couple of setbacks in 2022.
Preventing Another “Sputnik Moment”
In recent years, China has shown significant progress and acceleration in its hypersonic development efforts and has been recognized by the US.
To dodge another “sputnik moment,” Pentagon has been pouring resources into research and development (R&D) to close the gap with Russia and China, which recently made significant progress in its hypersonic weapon programs.
According to Defense One, the agency had requested a whopping budget of $4.7 billion for development and testing this fiscal year alone. That’s roughly a $3.8 billion increase compared to the previous year’s allocation.
With the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, Moscow had fielded some of its sophisticated arsenals of hypersonic weapons. At the same time, Beijing showcased its latest YJ-21 (Eagle Strike 21) anti-ship missile capabilities during the Airshow in 2022. The breakthrough in the HAWC program is a step closer to the Air Force and the overall military strength of the US.
Earlier this month, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) publicly boasted its Eagle Strike 21 missile that, accordingly, has a terminal speed of Mach 10 and that it would be impossible for any anti-missile weapon systems to intercept. The seemingly bragging report came after US Four-star General Mike Minihan warned about an inevitable war with China in 2025.
“My gut tells me we will fight in 2025,” said a memo, adding, “[Chinese President Xi Jinping] secured his third term and set his war council in October 2022. Taiwan’s presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a reason. United States presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a distracted America. Xi’s team, reason, and opportunity are all aligned for 2025. We spent 2022 setting the foundation for victory. We will spend 2023 in crisp operational motion building on that foundation. If you want to know what the operational motion I demand looks like, look at what Total Force Team Charleston did in January.” You can read the full version here.
While Pentagon has detached itself from Minihan’s views, Beijing has otherwise reported expressing “concern.”
Tensions between the superpowers have risen in the last year, primarily due to China’s increasing aggression in the Taiwan Strait, which the US strongly opposes.
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