A B-52 Stratofortress heavy, long-range bomber took to the skies over Edwards Air Force Base in California on Wednesday with an inactive, sensor-only prototype of the new AGM-183A Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), one of a handful of hypersonic weapons the Air Force is developing for the B-52s.
Hypersonic weapons are a key research and development area in the ongoing arms race between great power rivals Russia, China, and the United States. Hypersonics are particularly deadly because of their high speeds, in excess of Mach 5, and their maneuverability, which gives them the ability to evade enemy air-and-missile defense systems.
The hypersonic weapon carried by the B-52 on Wednesday did not contain explosives and was not released during testing, the Air Force said, explaining that the focus of the test was to gather data on drag and vibration effects on the weapon, as well as evaluate the external carriage equipment.
For the B-52, a non-stealth bomber that might struggle to skirt enemy air defenses, the stand-off capability provided by a weapon like the ARRW helps keep the decades-old aircraft relevant even as the U.S. prepares to fight wars against high-end opponents.
Stand-off is one area the U.S. military has been looking closely at as it upgrades its B-52s to extend their service life.
The Air Force, much like the Army and Navy, is pursuing hypersonic weapons technology as quickly as possible.
“We're using the rapid prototyping authorities provided by Congress to quickly bring hypersonic weapon capabilities to the warfighter,” Dr. Will Roper, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, said in a release.
The Air Force's ARRW is expected to achieve operational capability by fiscal year 2022.
“This type of speed in our acquisition system is essential — it allows us to field capabilities rapidly to compete against the threats we face,” Roper said, apparently referencing the challenges posed by near-peer competitors.
Russia, for instance, has developed the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal, a nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile that can be carried by both bombers and interceptor aircraft.
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