The US Air Force seems to be taking the threat of hypersonic missiles seriously, having just awarded Lockheed Martin a second contract worth up to US$480 million to develop a second prototype missile capable of flying at over five times the speed of sound. The Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) is part of an effort to "explore the art-of-the-possible" with the goal of providing the Air Force with a hypersonic missile by 2021.

Hypersonic missiles have the potential of being as great a game changer on the battlefield of tomorrow as the introduction of supersonic jets were almost 75 years ago. If any major power could field a practical weapon system in large numbers, it would be able to literally fly past any air defense currently deployed to reach its target without opposition.

Though there have been a number of claims by Russia and China that they have such a weapon, definite proof is still wanting, but there is a real arms race afoot as the USA, China, Russia, Germany, Britain, India, Australia, and even Indonesia conduct research into various aspects and problems of flying at Mach 5 (3,800 mph, 6,125 km/h) and above.

The US Air Force's latest contract is to provide the ARRW project with needed critical design review, test, and production readiness to fast track the development of a second prototype weapon on the heels of the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW), which Lockheed is also working on. This follows an agreement by the US Department of Defense, Missile Defense Agency, Air Force, Navy, and Army to cooperate on advancing hypersonic boost glide technology as quickly as possible.

"The Joint Team requires the right mix of agile capabilities to compete, deter and win across the spectrum of competition and conflict," says Air Force Chief of Staff General David L Goldfein. "We must push the boundaries of technology and own the high ground in this era of great power competition and beyond."

The new contract allows Lockheed to start work on the ARRW prototype straight away, with the final terms to be sorted out within 180 days. The new project will draw on experience from the Air Force/DARPA partnership, though the Air Force says that ARRW is taking a different technical approach to HCSW.

"We are going to go fast and leverage the best technology available to get hypersonic capability to the warfighter as soon as possible," says Secretary of the Air Force Heather A. Wilson.

Source: US Air Force