The US has carried out its first successful test of a hypersonic missile as it begins to close the gap in the global arms race to master the technology.
The move is hugely significant given China carried out its own successful test last year of the weapons that are so manoeuvrable in mid-air they can’t be intercepted or detected.
On Tuesday, the US Air Force confirmed it had fired the weapon from a B-52H Stratofortress off the coast of Southern California and said all of its objectives were met.
The missiles – known as an All-Up-Round AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) – flew at five times the speed of sound before detonating in a controlled area.
Previously, tests had only focussed on improving booster performance.
“The ARRW team successfully designed and tested an air-launched hypersonic missile in five years,” said Brigadier General Jason Bartolomei, armament directorate program executive officer. “I am immensely proud of the tenacity and dedication this team has shown to provide a vital capability to our warfighter.”
While hypersonic tech — defined as flying at least five times the speed of sound — is nothing new, countries are currently in a race to develop missiles that can evade interception like a fighter pilot twisting and turning in a dogfight.
There are currently two major ways it’s thought manoeuvrable hypersonic vehicles and missiles could work.
The first, known as a hypersonic cruise missile, would see a rocket blast to Mach 5 before using an air-breathing engine, or scramjet, to maintain its momentum.
The second, known as a glide vehicle, sees a rocket blast into the sky before releasing a separate hypersonic missile that has built up enough velocity to travel under its own speed. The two-step system means it can cruise along in the upper atmosphere with enough atmosphere to maintain lift but without too much to create drag.
In 2021, General Mark Milley, the US’ highest-ranking military officer, candidly admitted China’s experiment was “very concerning” and compared it to the Soviet Union’s American-beating launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957.
“It has all of our attention,” he said.
Australia is collaborating closely with both the US and the UK to perfect the technology.
Earlier this year, Australian Aviation reported how carbon fibre composites manufacturer Quickstep would work with Defence to try and identify the materials necessary to build the next generation of hypersonic weapons and aircraft.
The research is necessary because when objects fly so quickly, the friction created can increase temperatures to more than 1,000 degrees.
Quickstep are working with UNSW on the ‘Hype-X’ project to identify and test materials that can survive extreme conditions.
Initially, the research will focus on the applicability of existing materials, before exploring novel materials and manufacturing processes to fill capability gaps.
Quickstep is expected to obtain commercialisation rights to any newly developed intellectual property (IP), with Defence retaining the IP ownership.
The business’ CEO, Mark Burgess, talked about the company’s pioneering research and the future of hypersonic technology in our Engineering In Focus digital edition.