Courtesy illustration of an Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW).

The US Air Force has announced that it will not proceed with the hypersonic weapons program being developed by aerospace and defense giant Lockheed Martin. Instead, service officials have signaled they will try to support a different initiative from rival Raytheon Corp., Bloomberg first reported on Wednesday.

The decision comes after a hypersonic weapon test on March 13 that the Air Force admitted was “not a success.” The Lockheed Martin AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) had suffered several failures during testing. As a result, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall told lawmakers the program would be terminated.

The end of the ARRW?

The AGM-183 ARRW is a hypersonic air-to-surface missile equipped with a rocket engine that accelerates it to Mach 5 before gliding toward its target. Hypersonic air-to-surface missiles like the AGM-183 ARRW can reach speeds of Mach 5 thanks to its rocket boosters. In August of 2018, the Air Force granted Lockheed Martin a contract of $480 million to develop the air-launched hypersonic weapon.

The program, which did have a successful trial last December, has been marred by a series of setbacks. As a result, Congress halved funding for the hypersonic weapons platform last year, putting the procurement contract at risk.

Lockheed Martin’s Broken ARRW

In an appearance before the House defense subcommittee, Kendall said the service is still determining the cause of the ARRW’s problems.

“They have two more test items we can use, and we’ll probably have to decide on the fate of the ARRW after we complete the analysis and hopefully run those two tests,” Kendall said Tuesday.

However, a day later, Air Force acquisition chief Andrew Hunter wrote to the US House of Representatives subcommittee on tactical air and ground forces that the service “has no intention to continue to procure the ARRW after completion of the prototyping program.” Any follow-up tests will be conducted “to collect the training and test data that will help inform future hypersonic programs.”

Raytheon’s HACM goes ahead.

The US Air Force is now “more committed to HACM [hypersonic attack cruise missile, the service’s other major hypersonic weapons program] than it is to ARRW,” Kendall told lawmakers.

According to Air Force budget documents for the fiscal year 2024 (FY24), the service would request $381 million to continue fast prototyping development on the cruise missile.

That program has already been described as “reasonably successful,” having previously received $423 million in FY23, while service budget documents outline plans for nearly $1.5 billion to go toward HACM development between fiscal year 25 and fiscal year 28.

“We see a definite role for the HACM concept,” Kendall explained. “It is compatible with more of our aircraft and will give us more overall combat capability.”

What is HACM?

The HACM is an air-launched, scramjet-powered hypersonic weapon currently being developed to keep high-value targets at range in contested environments. The Air Force plans to have a HACM capacity with operational utility for the fiscal year 2027.

“HACM is a powerful example of developing and integrating combat capabilities with our partners from the beginning,” Air Force Chief of Staff General CQ Brown, Jr. said last year. “HACM will provide our commanders tactical flexibility to employ fighters that hold high-value and time-sensitive targets at risk while maintaining bombers for other strategic targets.”

speed demons

As the missiles can fly faster than Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, hypersonic weapons such as the ARRW are considered a possible game-changer for any force.

They are generally designed to be highly maneuverable in flight. In addition to their increased speed, hypersonic missiles can maneuver with computerized precision, which could make them difficult to neutralize.

Also, the speed and force of a hypersonic missile are so important that it can inflict damage from its sheer “kinetic” impact without even needing explosives.

The United States has at least five active hypersonic weapon development programs as of last year, and the Defense Department has been working hard to develop countermeasures.

In order to create prototypes of a hypersonic missile to intercept and destroy the projectile, the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) issued contracts for around $20 million to Raytheon Co, Lockheed Martin Corp, and Northrop Grumman Corp last year. Attacking an enemy hypersonic during its unpowered glide phase of flight.