RAF FAIRFORD, England — The Air Force is encouraged by successful back-to-back tests of a key hypersonic weapons program, but hasn’t yet decided how to proceed once it moves beyond the middle tier acquisition phase, its top acquisition official said July 16.
At a roundtable with reporters at the Royal International Air Tattoo here, Andrew Hunter said the Air Force is still trying to answer a key question as it develops hypersonic capabilities: What is the mix of weapons it needs for the threats the U.S. faces, particularly China, and how might a hypersonic such as the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW, fit in?
“Obviously, you wouldn’t buy something that doesn’t work,” Hunter said. “But even if it does work, it’s got to be the right contribution to the overall weapons mix and the highest priority targets. That’s what’s driving [Air Force] decision making.”
Last week, the Air Force’s second successful test flight in a row of ARRW ended the program’s booster test phase and moved it into its next phase of all-up-round testing. That will begin later this year.
Hunter said the Air Force is considering what it will do after ARRW finishes the middle tier acquisition phase — but that it has shown much promise. The Defense Department uses the middle tier acquisition approach to quickly produce prototypes that demonstrate a capability works.
ARRW is already at a “significantly higher level of maturity” than previous hypersonic programs at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Hunter said.
And when the prototyping work on ARRW is done, he added, he wants the Air Force to be ready to move into production of a usable hypersonic weapon.
Hypersonic weapons can reach speeds of greater than Mach 5 and maneuver midflight, making them capable of penetrating enemy defenses and hard to track and shoot down. China and Russia have focused heavily on researching and developing hypersonics, and some lawmakers have blasted the Defense Department for not doing enough to match their hypersonic capabilities.
The Air Force’s ARRW program had a string of three testing failures last year, when the ARRW had problems during launch. The failures and other delays led Congress to cut almost $161 million in the fiscal 2022 budget that would have let the Air Force procure ARRWs; lawmakers moved half that money to the research, development, test and evaluation account for hypersonics.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, who had repeatedly said the service needs to consider what role hypersonics should play in its arsenal, then said at a conference “ARRW still has to prove itself.”
But in May, the Air Force announced a successful test of ARRW from a B-52H Stratofortress. Lockheed Martin, which makes the ARRW, said after that test the program is expected to reach early operational capability next year.
Hunter said one of the biggest problems that typically shows up during the all-up-round testing phase are unexpected integration issues — “you know, the easy stuff,” he joked.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.