By Shannon Bugos
The United States has canceled the planned purchase of the Air Force’s hypersonic boost-glide system due to a lackluster testing record. But other Pentagon hypersonic weapons programs remain on schedule, with the Army planning to field the first U.S. hypersonic weapons system this fiscal year.
“The Air Force does not currently intend to pursue follow-on procurement of ARRW [the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon] once the prototyping program concludes,” Andrew Hunter, assistant secretary of defense for acquisition, told a congressional hearing on March 29.
Less than a week before, the Air Force conducted the ARRW system’s second all-up-round test flight, with a B-52H bomber releasing a prototype missile, but did not specify if it was successful as the first test was last December. (See ACT, January/February 2022.) Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall admitted to Congress on March 28 that the March 13 test failed.
The Pentagon has requested $150 million in research and development funding for the ARRW system in fiscal year 2024, a 30 percent increase from 2023. The program will wrap up after two more all-up-round test flights in order to gather data to inform future programs. The Air Force intended to begin procurement in 2023, but decided against it in light of three test failures in 2021. (See ACT, June 2022.)
Kendall said that the Air Force will focus instead on a program to which it is “more committed,” the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM), for which it requested $382 million for 2024.
Hypersonic boost-glide weapons programs remain underway for other services. The Army plans to deploy the first operational prototype battery of the Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) system, also known as Dark Eagle, by the fall of 2023. The Pentagon requested $944 million for continued R&D and $157 million for procurement in 2023.
Since 2021, the Army has trained with the first LRHW training battery at Joint Base Lewis-McCord in Washington state. (See ACT, November 2022.) In February, the service practiced deploying the system from Washington to Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The Army planned to conduct a test of the LRHW system from Cape Canaveral on March 5, but aborted the test due to a battery failure during preflight checks.
The LRHW system shares a common hypersonic boost-glide vehicle with the Navy, which led its development.
The Pentagon requested $901 million for R&D on the Navy’s program, Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS), and $341 million for the procurement of an initial eight all-up-round tests in 2024. This fiscal year marks the first year of CPS weapons system procurement funding.
The missiles are scheduled for deployment on Zumwalt-class destroyers in 2025, and the Navy plans to deploy the CPS system on Virginia-class submarines in 2028. The Pentagon aims to
test-fire CPS missiles from the USS Zumwalt in December 2025. The Navy’s first CPS weapons system all-up-round test failed in June 2022.
The Navy also requested $96 million in 2024 for its other main hypersonic weapons program, the Hypersonic Air-Launched Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare Increment II (HALO), which marks a 37 percent decrease from 2023. HALO missiles are intended for deployment on F/A-18 fighter jets.
Meanwhile, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) requested funds for its ongoing R&D on hypersonic weapons systems, including $82 million for the Tactical Boost Glide system, more than double the previous year, and $30 million for the MoHAWC weapons system, a hypersonic air-launched cruise missile, half of the system’s 2023 budget.
In total, the Defense Department asked for $11 billion for hypersonic weapons programs in 2024.
President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act on March 1 to accelerate the advancement of U.S. hypersonic weapons systems in order “to avert an industrial resource or critical technology item shortfall that would severely impair national defense capability,” he wrote in a directive to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
The United States pursues not only offensive hypersonic weapons systems but also defensive capabilities to defend against Chinese and Russian hypersonic systems.
DARPA asked for $29 million, $10 million more than in 2023, for the Glide Breaker program, which is intended to strike hypersonic weapons systems from long-range distance.
The Missile Defense Agency requested $209 million for the development of a regional interceptor capable of defeating hypersonic weapons in their glide phase. The United States and Japan have discussed a potential partnership on this project, which would aim to deliver the Glide Phase Interceptor in 2034.
The agency also requested $69 million for the low earth orbit Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor, scheduled for launch in late 2023 with on-orbit demonstrations and testing in 2024. The agency plans to transfer the responsibility for the space sensor to the Space Force after successful demonstrations as part of its Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared system architecture.
This architecture includes layers in low and medium earth orbit to track a range of advanced missile threats, including hypersonic weapons. The 2024 budget requests for those layers came in at $1.3 billion and $538 million, respectively.
The Space Development Agency transitioned into the Space Force in October 2022. As a result, the space agency’s “Tracking Layer” is now synonymous with the Space Force’s low earth program. The 2024 funds will go toward the development of the Tranche 1 Tracking Layer, comprising 35 satellites that are slated to begin launching in 2024.
On April 2, the space agency launched 10 satellites from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California into low earth orbit as part of Tranche 0. Two of the 10 are tracking satellites for hypersonic weapons systems. The agency plans to launch the remaining 18 Tranche 0 satellites in June.