The US is working on hypersonic weapons to catch up with Russia and China. An AGM-183A ARRW was successfully launched from an old B-52 bomber – it reached five times the speed of sound.

On the subject of hypersonic weapons, the US is lagging behind countries like Russia and China – but they want to catch up. Now a rocket was launched from a B-52 bomber and actually reached hypersonic range. This is what is currently called everything that reaches five times the speed of sound and more.

Glider without drive

The AGM-183A ARRW is one of the air-launched systems. ARRW stands for Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon – roughly: Airborne Rapid Response Weapon. This means that the carrier system – the bomber – already has a certain speed, then a rocket stage – the booster – starts, which accelerates the system to the final speed. Eventually, a hypersonic glider – the actual warhead – separates from the missile and rushes toward its target at high speed.

“After separation from the aircraft, the ARRW’s booster ignited and burned for the expected duration, reaching hypersonic speeds five times the speed of sound,” the Pentagon said. However, the desired speed of the system is 20 times the speed of sound. The glider itself has no independent drive on the ARRW. It plummets toward its target along a flat atmospheric trajectory once it separates from the booster. Even without main propulsion, the glider can change course, which would make it very difficult to intercept.

Multiple false starts

The AGM-183A ARRW had problems, there were three failures before the test was successful. As early as mid-March, the USA tested the so-called Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC). The output stage of the HAWC is not motorless. It works with a “breathing” scramjet engine without a supercharger, which also has to be accelerated by a booster rocket before it can ignite.

The US program was accelerated after it became apparent how far the US is lagging behind its competitors. Russia tested the comparable Kinzhal system years ago. The Pentagon believes Moscow has used 10 to 12 hypersonic weapons in Ukraine so far.

Bang from Beijing

China’s rearmament is particularly threatening. Last year, Beijing tested a hypersonic weapon that circled the globe before hitting its target. This weapon can hit any point on earth in a short flight time. Such a system is difficult to intercept, not only because of its high speed.

The rocket almost leaves the atmosphere, the glider then “flips” around the earth. It can change course multiple times, bypass intercept positions, and attack its target from any direction. In addition to the range, Beijing presented another innovation. The Chinese not only managed to steer the missile in the hypersonic phase, they were also able to launch another body from their glider. This was previously thought to be impossible or extremely difficult. Beijing has thus pushed the boundaries of physics, it said. The Chinese armed forces have demonstrated that this hypersonic glider can eject multiple flying objects, each of which heads for its own target. The Chinese program seems particularly complex and ambitious, because in addition to military applications, work is being done on hypersonic space shuttles.

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