U.S. Air Force launches the first operational hypersonic missile

The new AGM-183A air-launched rapid response weapon, or ARRW (Arrow), is expected to be the first hypersonic weapon of the U.S. armed forces to reach operational status. 

The exact speed of the AGM-183A is not disclosed, although it is said that the Lockheed Martin-developed weapon is based on previous test vehicles built by DARPA that have an estimated top speed of Mach 20, or 24,000 km/h.


The successful ARRW test was conducted on December 9 at a test site off the coast of California, according to a statement released by the U.S. Air Force on December 12. “This test was the first launch of a fully operational prototype missile,” the statement reads. 

“After separating from the aircraft, it reached hypersonic speeds of five times the speed of sound, completed its flight, and exploded near the terminal. Indications are that all objectives were achieved.”


“The ARRW team has successfully developed and tested an air-launched hypersonic missile in five years,” said Brig. Gen. Jason Bartholomew, executive director of the Weapons Directorate program, in an Air Force statement, “I am incredibly proud of the perseverance and dedication this team has demonstrated to deliver a vital capability to our warfighter.

According to the U.S. Air Force, the missile is designed to “engage fixed, high-value, time-sensitive targets at risk in challenging environments,” meaning it will be used to engage predetermined targets on the ground, such as fixed missile sites, radar stations, air defense sites, infrastructure or even enemy headquarters buildings – virtually anything significant in a combat environment that cannot be moved and must be destroyed quickly.


Although the Department of Defense does not usually announce these tests in advance, aviation observers in Southern California last week spotted a B-52H carrying an AGM-183A missile toward the test site.

AGM-183A is a so-called glide vehicle, which refers to warheads or projectiles that glide to their target after being lifted by a rocket booster. Before it is fired, the ARRW is carried under the wing of an aircraft, such as the B-52H bomber that lifted it for this test flight. 

A solid rocket booster is then ignited, which lifts the missile to a certain altitude and speed before its payload fairings open and release the wedge-shaped upper stage inside.

These launch vehicles do not fall in a predictable arc-like trajectory like ballistic missiles. Instead, they glide downward toward their targets without energy on a gentler course and can perform sharp maneuvers in flight.

This capability, along with their extreme speed, makes this class of weapon extremely difficult for modern air defense systems to detect, track and engage. To this end, the U.S. Department of Defense is also developing new classes of interceptors to help counter the growing hypersonic threat worldwide.

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