The US Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have completed successful captive-carry tests of two hypersonic weapon variants designed by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, the organizations announced in a press release on 1 September.
A captive-carry flight test is when missiles remained attached to a test aircraft for the duration of the flight. The method offers an opportunity to accumulate data about how the design, as well as the aircraft carrying it, will perform subsequent free-flight tests.
Both companies, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, have designed the scramjet-powered hypersonic missiles as part of the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) program run by the Air Force and DARPA, writes Defense News.
“Completing the captive carry series of tests demonstrates both HAWC designs are ready for free flight,” said Andrew Knoedler, DARPA’s HAWC program manager, making no mention of the location of the tests or the aircraft used.
The success of the recent tests put the US Air Force one step closer to achieving a long-cherished goal of fielding a hypersonic cruise missile.
As he underscored that the next step now was to proceed to actual free-flight testing before the end of the year, Knoedler added:
“These tests provide us a large measure of confidence – already well informed by years of simulation and wind tunnel work – that gives us faith the unique design path we embarked on will provide unmatched capability to U.S. forces.”
Lockheed Martin and Raytheon have confirmed that their separate air vehicle designs are capable of reaching and sustaining flights in excess of five times the speed of sound.
Further flight tests will be seeking to assess the ability of the weapons’ propulsion and thermal management systems to withstand hypersonic cruise speeds, says DARPA in a news release.
Quest for Fieldable Hypersonic Weapon
No reference was made in the DARPA statement to an incident involving one of the missiles when an accident was reported by Aviation Week to have occurred during captive carry tests in June.
DARPA and the US Air Force (USAF) had reportedly been carrying out a probe after an experimental missile managed to separate from a B-52 strategic bomber of the 419th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, California and explode during a captive-carry flight test, according to Aviation Week, citing US military sources.
Earlier, at a 30 April briefing, USAF acquisition executive Will Roper touted increased focus on hypersonic missile research and plans for a new prototyping program to possibly develop a hypersonic - or supersonic - cruise missile.
Budget constraints had led to the USAF choosing Lockheed Martin’s AGM-183 Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) hypersonic missile over a competitor design, the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon earlier in the year.
According to an annual review of major US military programs, released on 3 June 2020 by the Government Accountability Office, the US Air Force planned to buy at least eight prototype AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapons, or ARRWs.
The first batch of hypersonic missiles was to support live-fire flight testing, set to begin in 2021.
If successful, the service would be granted an early operational capability to employ the weapons a year later, feeding into the US' ambitions of making up for lost time in the international hypersonic arms race.