The U.S. Navy and Army successfully conducted a test of hypersonic weapons components and materials on Wednesday, the Navy announced, amid continued efforts to surpass Russia and China in developing hypersonic weapons.
Hypersonic weapons refer to weapons that can travel faster than Mach 5—meaning five times faster than the speed of sound, or around 3,800 mph (6,116 kph)—and can maneuver during the flight.
Sandia National Laboratories ran the test Wednesday from a seaside launch pad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
“This test will be used to inform the development of the Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) and the Army’s Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) offensive hypersonic strike capability,” the U.S. Navy announced. The efforts are “on track to support the first fielding of a hypersonic capability to the Army” in fiscal year 2023, it said.
The test involved a precision launch of a sounding rocket—a smaller and therefore more affordable test vehicle—to test various hypersonic weapon communications and navigation equipment.
Tests also included seeing whether materials could withstand the heat generated when traveling at Mach 5. “These rockets contained experimental payloads that provided data on the performance of materials and systems in a realistic hypersonic environment,” a statement from the Navy reads.
A second sounding rocket will be launched later this week to complete the latest round of testing.
The Navy said that the sounding rocket launches “fill a critical gap between ground testing and full system flight testing” during weapon systems development.
“This test is a vital step in the development of a Navy-designed common hypersonic missile,” the Navy stated. The missile consists of a booster rocket and a Common Hypersonic Glide Body (CHGB).
To operate, the booster rocket would launch the system to accelerate it to hypersonic speeds at a trajectory, and the glide body would subsequently detach and glide back through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds, with maneuvres, to reach its target.
The system would be fielded by both the Navy and Army, with individual weapon systems and launchers tailored for launch from sea or land.
The first full-system test of the CHGB hypersonic weapon was conducted on June 29 at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii. But it failed after an unspecified “anomaly” took place after ignition.
Separately, the U.S. Air Force has been developing a different type of hypersonic weapon intended to achieve constant high speeds over longer distances. The weapon uses a supersonic combustion ramjet (scramjet) engine to achieve high speeds. It is referred to as the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) and can be used for land attacks. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in April confirmed that it and the Air Force had successfully conducted a hypersonic test of this weapon.
That test came just weeks after Russia in March announced it had used a similar weapon in Ukraine for the first time, which also marked the first time such hypersonic missiles were used in combat.
Gillian Bussey, director of the Joint Hypersonics Transition Office at the Department of Defense, expressed concern in February over the scale and pace of China’s development of hypersonic technology. She added that increasing U.S. hypersonic capabilities as well as the rate of their production is important.
The United States has lagged in hypersonic weapons development over the past decade. This is in part due to a much-derided military bureaucracy that can slow weapons development down to as much as 20 years per system, and in part due to a perceived lack of need among senior leadership.
Andrew Thornebrooke contributed to this report.