U.S. Air Force Confirms Speculations Over Recent AGM-183A Hypersonic Missile Test


Welcome to this week’s Intelligence Brief… on Sunday, a hypersonic missile test conducted by the U.S. Air Force that many had speculated would soon be underway took place. In our analysis, we’ll be looking at 1) the recent successful test over the Marshall Islands, 2) what the USAF’s new AGM-183A hypersonic weapon is capable of, 3) how images that appeared online last month led to speculations about an imminent test involving the new weapon, and 4) why its arrival marks a pivotal moment as amidst similar developments by foreign nations.

Quote of the Week

“The Air Force gained valuable insights into the capabilities of this new, cutting-edge technology.”

– U.S. Air Force Statement issued following Sunday’s test.

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With all the housekeeping out of the way, it’s time we take a look at the recent test of a hypersonic missile by the U.S. that occurred over the weekend.

The USAF Performs a Successful Hypersonic Test

It was learned this week that the United States Air Force (USAF) conducted tests with a prototype hypersonic missile in the Marshall Islands.

Providing few details about the drill, which occurred on Sunday, the USAF launched the missile from a B-52 bomber on Tuesday.

The test follows years of similar tests undertaken by China and Russia, as well as setbacks the U.S. has experienced in testing its own hypersonic weapons, which are capable of traveling at greater than five times the speed of sound.

The advanced weapons are also capable of reaching targets from angles of approach that make them difficult to spot with early warning systems.

Despite slow progress in developing the technology, the test is believed to represent the culmination of several years of work spent developing the missile and marks a significant moment in the U.S.’s advancement with hypersonic capabilities.

The Air Force’s New ARRW

The missile, formally known as the AGM-183, is an air-launched rapid response weapon (ARRW, pronounced “arrow”), a variety of hypersonic air-to-ground missile that is driven to top speeds of more than Mach 5 using a rocket motor before entering a glide phase that delivers the weapon to its target.

The program has its roots in a $480 million contract granted to aerospace giant Lockheed Martin back in 2018, with initial tests beginning in June the following year. By 2020, it was believed the weapon would soon be ready for use.

AGM-183A Hypersonic Missile seen prior to a test that occurred over the Marshall Islands on Sunday (USAF).

However, numerous setbacks occurred, which included the cancellation of the program following a series of failed tests last spring. Nonetheless, the program quietly continued with additional testing that was initially undisclosed to the public.

In early December, tests with a full prototype operational AGM-183 were conducted at a test range off the Southern California coast, which the USAF said had been the first official launch of one of the fully operational devices. During that test, the ARRW reached speeds greater than Mach 5 before detonating in the designated terminal area.

Renewed Speculations

Last month, images of the missile released by the U.S. Air Force prompted speculations of forthcoming tests overseas with the AGM-183.

According to a USAF press release, B-52 Stratofortress crews with the USAF’s 23rd Expeditionary Bomb Squadron and 49th Test and Evaluation Squadron were participating at the time “in hypersonic weapon familiarization training at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam,” in late February.

“The participating crews received expert academics and training on hypersonic fundamentals,” the release stated, “and participated in tactical discussion on hypersonic operations to increase operational readiness and prepare multiple Air Force aircraft communities for hypersonics including the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile, Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, and other programs under development.”

Images of the AGM-183A that appeared online in February led to speculation that a test would be imminent (USAF).

Beyond just “familiarization training,” the successful test on Sunday confirmed speculations that the AGM-183A would soon be involved in training exercises over the region.

China and Russia’s Hypersonic Ambitions

While the recent tests mark a significant step forward for the U.S. and its hypersonic capabilities, they follow similar tests that China and Russia have been engaged in for several years.

In 2020, Russia announced the successful test launch of a Zircon hypersonic cruise missile, a weapon with a more than 600-mile range and purportedly equipped to travel nine times the speed of sound.

Similar developments that include China’s waverider hypersonic flight vehicle, which the country claims can avoid any current missile defense systems, have also bolstered the U.S.’s involvement in hypersonic development.

Addressing such concerns last year, Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck said during a Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces hearing that hypersonic weapons represent one of the most significant defense challenges the U.S. currently faces.

Gen. Glen VanHerck
Gen. Glen VanHerck (Credit: NORAD).

“Hypersonic weapons are extremely difficult to detect and counter given the weapons’ speed and maneuverability,” VanHerck said, adding that “the greatest risk for the United States stems from our inability to change at the pace required by the changing strategic environment.”

Along with Sunday’s tests over the Marshall Islands, the USAF said last month that it plans to continue investing in “researching, developing, testing, producing, and fielding cost-effective weapons.

“These weapons are a mix of stand-off, stand-in, hypersonic, and subsonic precision guided munitions,” it said, adding that “The Air Force also continues to develop revolutionary advanced weapon capabilities to maintain a competitive advantage over the pacing challenge.”

That concludes this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief. You can read past editions of The Intelligence Brief at our website, or if you found this installment online, don’t forget to subscribe and get future email editions from us here. Also, if you have a tip or other information you’d like to send along directly to me, you can email me at micah [@] thedebrief [dot] org, or Tweet at me @MicahHanks.

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