DARPA’s hypersonic cruise missile has completed its final test, follow-up to come

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the US Air Force have completed the Hypersonic air-breathing weapon concept (HAWC) with a final flight test involving the Lockheed Martin design. DARPA already plans to use the data collected throughout Development of HAWC over the years to inform a follow-on program called More Opportunities with HAWC (MoHAWC) that will aim to demonstrate a capability that is another step closer to an operational hypersonic weapon.

DARPA announced today that the HAWC program had ended after a flight test in early January of the Lockheed Martin and Aerojet Rocketdyne bid, the latter company having produced the missile’s scramjet engine. A rival HAWC design from Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, who made a free flight test passed in September 2021was also tested in the HAWC project.

An artist’s conception of a hypersonic air-breathing missile that DARPA previously released as part of the HAWC program. Credit: DARPA

A correspondent Lockheed Martin press release explains that the missile was launched from a B-52 Stratofortress bomberas was the case with an earlier flight test of the company’s announced HAWC design last april. During this month’s test, the HAWC system’s booster stage first accelerated it to a high speed. The Aerojet Rocketdyne scramjet engine then took over, propelling the missile to a speed above the hypersonic threshold of March 5. The missile then flew at over 60,000 feet and over 300 nautical miles, according to DARPA.

“The HAWC program has created a generation of new hypersonic engineers and scientists,” said Andrew “Tippy” Knoedler, HAWC program manager. “HAWC has also brought a wealth of data and progress to the aerobic hypersonic community. Industry teams took up the challenge of scramjet powered vehicles seriously, and we were brave and lucky to make it work.

“We had our share of difficulties,” added Knoedler. “Through a pandemic, a tight supply chain and atmospheric rivers, our industry partners have forged ahead, mitigating risk where they can and accepting others. They kept their promises, proving the feasibility of the concept.

Lockheed Martin’s role in DARPA’s HAWC program began in 2018 when the company won a $928 million contract from the agency and the Air Force to develop its version of the hypersonic cruise missile. While Lockheed Martin originally pitched its design as a land attack capability, the company has since launched a maritime strike variant of the concept to the US Navy with the idea that it could potentially be launched from F-35C stealth fighters among other platforms.

Artist’s rendering of a US Navy F-35C Joint Strike Fighter carrying a future HAWC variant under its wing while firing another. Credit: Joseph Trevithick

The Aerojet Rocketdyne scramjet engine used by Lockheed Martin’s HAWC missile has played a key role in ensuring the weapon will be able to maintain hypersonic speeds between Mach 5 and Mach 10 in flight. Even still, details on Lockheed Martin/Aerojet Rocketdyne and Raytheon/Northrop Grumman HAWC designs remain limited.

Share similar ambitions as other hypersonic armed development programs in the United States, HAWC envisions providing the US military with a capability capable of striking a critical target at significant ranges at very high speeds and on short notice. HAWC was particularly focused on maturing technologies, like scramjet engines, that would go into future air-breathing hypersonic cruise missile designs.

While capabilities like HAWC are much closer in form and function to existing cruise missiles, namely the supersonicthese hypersonic weapons will travel at higher speeds while still being able to maneuver through the atmosphere, making it very difficult for adversaries to defend against them.

DARPA made it clear early on that the Lockheed Martin and Raytheon designs are just stepping stones in the Air Force’s broader push to develop a hypersonic air-breathing cruise missile usable on field. Now that DARPA’s HAWC project has completed its final test, the agency plans to continue to mature this technology under the aforementioned follow-on program it has dubbed MoHAWC.

“These missiles will expand the scramjet’s operational envelope and provide technology on-ramps for future registration programs,” reads the DARPA press release.

The fiscal year 2023 (FY23) budget justification documents explain that efforts under the MoHAWC program, for which DARPA is requesting $60 million, will include “advancement of the hydrocarbon scramjet, reduction of navigation components, upgrade of aircraft integration algorithms and improvement of manufacturing approaches”. .” The document goes on to say, “Flight testing will expand the operational envelope. This program will work with Navy and Air Force science and technology efforts to meet future technology insertion dates for registered service programs.

Excerpt from FY23 budget justification documents explaining what the MoHAWC is expected to entail. Credit: Department of Defense

The budget documents also list specific FY23 goals for the MoHAWC project, which include incorporating HAWC lessons learned into the design of the cruiser; initiation of long-lead component procurement for four flight test systems; complete subsystem technology risk reduction efforts; and begin assembly, integration and ground testing of cruisers. Although the term “cruiser” in this context is a bit nebulous, it could indicate a more robust air-breathing hypersonic capability, in this case most likely a cruise missile design.

A separate Air Force hypersonic weapons initiative known as the Project Mayhem, which aims to deliver a larger class air-breathing hypersonic system capable of performing multiple missions, also used this language in program explanations. In a interview with Aviation weekthe Air Force specifically described Mayhem as a “multi-mission cruiser” due to the program’s “early focus on sustained hypersonic flight capabilities independent of potential payloads”, but it is unclear what might be the relationship between Mayhem and HAWC, if any.

Conceptual rendering of the Project Mayhem hypersonic weapon. Credit: Read

In addition to this, HAWC should power the Air Force’s own Hypersonic attack cruise missile (HACM). HACM is yet another Department of Defense program to develop an air-launched, air-breathing hypersonic weapon, and a critical design review of the missile is currently scheduled for next summer.

Russia and China have been actively making progress on their own hypersonic missiles of various types lately, which some say only underscores the need for the United States to establish such a capability. The was criticized that the United States could be falling behind Russia and China, both of which claim to have already deployed various hypersonic weapons. In fact, Russia recently insisted that Admiral Gorshkov, who at the time was somewhere in the Atlantic, is currently armed with Zircon hypersonic cruise missiles. The capability or readiness of these missiles for combat is unclear at this time.

Russian navy frigate Admiral Gorchkov leaves port on or around January 4, 2023. 1 credit

Proponents of developing hypersonic weapons say they will be key capabilities for the United States in future high-level conflict. With DARPA having completed the HAWC program, opening the door for the technology to mature under the new MoHAWC project, it looks like the US military is at least on the verge of meeting such a need.

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