Broken ARRW: Air Force's First Hypersonic Missile Fails During Inaugural Test

The prototype missile never left the wing of the B-52H bomber carrying it during the hugely anticipated test.

A B-52H bomber loaded with a captive-carry test article in support of the AGM-183A ARRW program.
USAF

The U.S. Air Force's hotly anticipated first live-fire flight test of a prototype AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon hypersonic missile, or ARRW, was unsuccessful. The service says there was "an issue on the aircraft," a B-52H bomber assigned to the 419th Flight Test Squadron out of Edwards Air Force Base in California, and it "did not launch" the weapon.

The abortive test was conducted over the Point Mugu Sea Test Range in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Southern California on Apr. 5, 2021. This came a day after the end of a self-imposed 30-day deadline that the Air Force had announced on March 5. The plan had been for this launch to validate the performance of the missile's rocket booster, as well as the separation of a simulated unpowered boost-glide vehicle payload. The surrogate vehicle was not designed to actually fly and was expected to disintegrate after release from the missile body.

USAF

US Air Force personnel work on an AGM-183A captive-carry test article loaded on a B-52H bomber during an earlier test.

"Instead, the test missile was not able to complete its launch sequence and was safely retained on the aircraft which returned to Edwards AFB," according to an official Air Force press release. The Air Force has conducted seven previous flight tests involving captive-carry test articles that are not designed to be released from the B-52Hs carrying them. At present, the service plans to buy at least eight full-up AGM-183A prototypes, some of which could be deployed in a limited operational capacity depending on how future flight testing goes.

“The ARRW program has been pushing boundaries since its inception and taking calculated risks to move this important capability forward," Air Force Brigadier General Heath Collins, the service's Program Executive Officer for Weapons, said in a statement. "While not launching was disappointing, the recent test provided invaluable information to learn from and continue ahead. This is why we test."

A complete prototype of the AGM-183A with an actual hypersonic boost-glide vehicle inside its nose has also yet to be tested. Operational examples of these weapons will use their rocket boosters to loft those vehicles to an optimal speed and altitude. After that, the wedge-shaped vehicle is designed to glide toward its target along an atmospheric flight trajectory at hypersonic velocity, defined as anything above Mach 5.

The boost-glide vehicle is cable of making more unpredictable movements compared to traditional ballistic missiles, even those with maneuverable reentry vehicles. This gives the hypersonic weapon distinct advantages for penetrating through hostile air and missile defenses to reach time-sensitive or other high-value targets. The combination of speed and maneuverability also presents novel challenges to opponents when it comes to spotting and tracking these weapons, which, in turn, makes it extremely hard to defend against them in any way, including simply trying to move critical assets out of the target area.

The Air Force has previously said that ARRW will only need between 10 and 12 minutes to hit targets 1,000 miles away. This could suggest the weapon has an expected average speed of between 5,000 and 6,000 miles per hour, or roughly between Mach 6.5 and Mach 8.

This first flight test had already been much anticipated, having been pushed back twice already since the end of 2020. Notices to Airmen (NOTAM), which the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had begun issuing 10 days ago, regarding airspace restrictions over a particular area in the Pacific near the Point Mugu Sea Test Range had already indicated that this test was imminent. The most recent set of NOTAMs covered restrictions today, April 5.

Ahead of the official announcement regarding the test, plane spotters, using online flight tracking software, had also noticed one of NASA's WB-57F test aircraft, which has the U.S. civil registration code N927NA, flying an orbit near this restricted airspace. The WB-57Fs can be configured to carry various payloads to support different types of tests. Recent sightings of N927NA have confirmed that the aircraft is presently flying with a nose-mounted turret containing electro-optical and infrared video cameras, a sensor system that has been used to gather visual data about missile tests in the past.

NASA/Southern Research

Images showing a NASA WB-57F with the sensor turret nose, at left, and a look at the displays for those cameras inside the aircraft, at right.

Online flight tracking data also showed that two U.S. Navy P-3C Orion aircraft belonging to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 30 (VX-30) out of Naval Air Station Point Mugu in California were flying orbits in the same general area. It is unclear if this activity was in any way related to the ARRW test. At the same time, the Navy does employ P-3 variants for range control, which involves, in part, ensuring that no unwanted guests stray into restricted airspace during tests, as well as other testing support purposes.

USAV Worthy, a U.S. Army missile range instrumentation ship, was also observed arriving in San Diego in late March. This ship, which carries multiple radars able to collect valuable telemetry data, has supported hypersonic testing in the Pacific in the past.

The failure of the first live-fire ARRW test also notably comes after Air Force General Timothy Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, had some choice words with regards to the U.S. Army ground-based Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) program. LHRW is that service's half of a joint effort with the U.S. Navy.

"Honestly, I think it’s stupid,” Ray said of LRHW in an edition of the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute’s Aerospace Advantage podcast released on March 31. “I just think it’s a stupid idea to go and invest that kind of money that recreates something that the service has mastered and that we’re doing already right now."

What Ray was referring to in regards to what the Air Force has already "mastered" is Bomber Task Force (BTF) deployments and other long-range bomber missions, which the service routinely conducts around the world. His position was that adding hypersonic weapons to those aircraft would be simpler than the Army's plans for all-new LRHW unitsand concepts of operation to go with them.

Ray went on to raise multiple criticisms of the Army's project, specifically the potential difficulties in finding locations to base LRHW units in the Pacific region, where a number of American allies have already said they will not host these weapons. Other elements of the Department of Defense have, however, voiced support for hypersonic weapon developments across the Air Force, Army, and Navy, including as part of broader plans in the Pacific to contain the Chinese government's expansionary behavior and general growing influence. The comments from the head of AFGSC do point to a potential looming budget battle, wherein the success or failure of certain systems in testing could be a major factor.

Regardless, while this failed test can only be disappointing for the Air Force, it still no doubt provided important new data that the ARRW program will be able to make use of going forward. The AGM-183A remains set to be the Air Force's first operational air-launched hypersonic weapon and is a capability, as General Ray underscored, that the service views as critical to its future high-end concepts of operation again major potential adversaries, especially China.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com