U.S. Air Force, DARPA to Test Two New Hypersonic Weapons This Year

The United States is planning to test two new hypersonic weapons currently being developed jointly by the U.S. Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) by the end of 2019, according to Steven Walker, Director of DARPA.

The two weapons that will be tested are being developed under USAF/DARPA’s Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) and the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) programs.

“So, I’m hopeful that we can fly both of those [the Tactical Boost Glide and Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept hypersonic missile projects] by the end of ’19 [but] it may slip into the early ’20 time-frame”, Walker said at the Defense Writers’ Group breakfast in Washington on Wednesday.

The TBG program seeks to develop an air-launched rocket, equipped with terminal hypersonic glide vehicle, that will have speeds faster than Mach 5 and able to reach altitudes of nearly 200,000 ft, while the HAWC programs seeks to develop an air launched hypersonic cruise missile.

“Two very different concepts but when you’re talking hypersonics it’s good to have what I consider intended redundancy because it’s a hard technology making materials and propulsion systems that last in 3,000-degree Fahrenheit temperatures,” he said.

DARPA plans to flight test both the weapons from a B-52 Stratafortress strategic bomber preferably by the end of this year. The tests could extend into the early 2020 time frame in case of unintended challenges.

The U.S. Army is also partnering with DARPA to develop a ground-launched tactical weapons delivery system that are able to deliver hypersonic boost glide vehicles (derivatives of TBG) to target. The U.S. Air Force is also pursuing two other air-launched hypersonic weapon prototyping efforts – the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW) and the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW).

Hypersonic missiles/glide vehicles fly at least five times faster than the speed of sound (Mach 5) at high altitudes. Along with the United States, Russia and China are also currently leading the way in developing hypersonic capabilities.

Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC)

The Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) program is a joint DARPA/U.S. Air Force (USAF) effort that seeks to develop and demonstrate critical technologies to enable an effective and affordable air-launched hypersonic cruise missile.

The program intends to emphasize efficient, rapid and affordable flight tests to validate key technologies.

Lockheed Martin High Speed Strike Weapon (HSSW)
A rendering of High Speed Strike Weapon (HSSW), a hypersonic conventional strike missile being developed by Lockheed Martin.

HAWC plans to pursue flight demonstrations to address three critical technology challenge areas or program pillars—air vehicle feasibility, effectiveness, and affordability. Technologies of interest include:

  • Advanced air vehicle configurations capable of efficient hypersonic flight
  • Hydrocarbon scramjet-powered propulsion to enable sustained hypersonic cruise
  • Approaches to managing the thermal stresses of high-temperature cruise
  • Affordable system designs and manufacturing approaches

Lockheed Martin is assisting DARPA for the HAWC program.

DARPA/USAF Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) program

The Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) program is a joint DARPA/U.S. Air Force (USAF) effort that aims to develop and demonstrate technologies to enable future air-launched, tactical-range hypersonic boost glide systems. In a boost glide system, a rocket accelerates its payload to high speeds. The payload then separates from the rocket and glides unpowered to its destination.

Early this year, Raytheon won the $63.3 million contract from DARPA to further develop the Tactical Boost Glide hypersonic weapons program.

DARPA Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) Hypersonic Weapon Concept
An artist’s rendering of the Raytheon Advanced Missile Systems’ Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) hypersonic weapon system. Source: Raytheon

The TBG program plans to focus on three primary objectives:

  • Vehicle Feasibility—Vehicle concepts possessing the required aerodynamic and aerothermal performance, controllability and robustness for a wide operational envelope
  • Effectiveness—System attributes and subsystems required to be effective in relevant operational environments
  • Affordability—Approaches to reducing cost and increasing value for both the demonstration system and future operational sy

TBG is a two-phase effort that plans to include ground and flight testing to mature critical technologies, and aims to demonstrate the system performance achievable through the integration of those technologies. The program is using a disciplined systems engineering approach to define demonstration system objectives and identify enabling technologies needed for future systems. The TBG program is exploiting the technical knowledge and lessons derived from development and flight testing of previous boost glide systems, including the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2).

DARPA’s Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2)
A DARPA illustration depicts DARPA’s Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicle as it emerges from its rocket nose cone and prepares to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.

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