The United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), in cooperation with the US Air Force completed a “free flight” of the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC).
The missile, built by Raytheon Technologies, was released from an aircraft seconds before its Northrop Grumman scramjet (supersonic combustion ramjet) engine kicked on.
The engine compressed incoming air mixed with its hydrocarbon fuel and began igniting that fast-moving airflow mixture, propelling the cruiser at a speed greater than Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound).
This is still not actually hypersonic, especially compared to Russian hypersonic projectiles who fly at around Mach 10, but still, it shows that the United States is making progress in this technology.
The HAWC vehicle operates best in oxygen-rich atmosphere, where speed and maneuverability make it difficult to detect in a timely way. It could strike targets much more quickly than subsonic missiles and has significant kinetic energy even without high explosives.
“The HAWC free flight test was a successful demonstration of the capabilities that will make hypersonic cruise missiles a highly effective tool for our warfighters,” said Andrew “Tippy” Knoedler, HAWC program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “This brings us one step closer to transitioning HAWC to a program of record that offers next generation capability to the U.S military.”
The goals of the mission that were successfully fulfilled include:
- vehicle integration and release sequence;
- safe separation from the launch aircraft;
- booster ignition and boost;
- booster separation and engine ignition;
All of these were met, which is a significant success for the US. In its most recent test the AGM-183 ARRW, developed by Lockheed Martin failed, and a win was much needed for Washington’s hypersonic ambition.
The achievement builds on pioneering scramjet projects, including work on the X-30 National Aero-Space Plane as well as unmanned flights of NASA’s X-43 vehicles and the U.S. Air Force’s X-51 Waverider.
“HAWC’s successful free flight test is the culmination of years of successful government and industry partnership, where a single, purpose-driven team accomplished an extremely challenging goal through intense collaboration,” Knoedler added. “This historic flight would not have been possible without the dedication of industry, U.S. Air Force, and Navy flight test personnel who persevered through the pandemic to make the magic happen.”
The HAWC flight test data will help validate affordable system designs and manufacturing approaches that will field air-breathing hypersonic missiles to our warfighters in the near future.
As a result it turns out that NASA’s experience with the space planes was useful not only for gathering information from space and orbit, but also gathering experience to share for hypersonic flight.