The US hypersonic weapons program has reached a major milestone, with a Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) hypersonic cruise missile developed by Raytheon Technologies and Northrop Grumman completing two successful flight tests in a row.
Though a number of different nations are developing hypersonic weapon systems and some have even deployed them to a limited degree, the real hurdle that has still to be cleared is to produce a controllable hypersonic missile that is both practical and reliable.
The July flight of the HAWC missile for DARPA and the US Department of Defense was conducted at an undisclosed location and follows on the heels of a previous successful first test on September 2, 2021. Flying a hypersonic vehicle isn’t new. They’ve been in the air since the X-15 program in the 1960s. What is interesting is that there were two successful flights in a row of such an advanced autonomous weapon prototype.
Though a gap of 11 months between flights seems large, the Raytheon Technologies/Northrop Grumman team points out that the HAWC program is fast-tracking development by using digital engineering, where a virtual twin of the missile has flown countless flights in a computer simulation between the two real-world tests. This allows the team to use digital models and real-world flight data to develop new materials, manufacturing processes, and aerodynamic shapes best suited to withstand the temperatures and stresses of flying at speeds in excess of Mach 5.
For the latest test, the HAWC prototype was carried under the wing of an aircraft and flown to high altitude, where it was released. A solid rocket booster then accelerated the vehicle to supersonic speed and a scramjet ignited. An engine without moving parts, a scramjet uses its forward motion to compress the incoming air into a shockwave that burns with fuel, producing enough thrust to propel the missile to over five times the speed of sound.
The latest prototype had only minor modifications from the previous flight and met all of its objectives. The data recovered by telemetry will be used to improve the digital models using artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data, which will increase the efficiency and performance as the weapon concept comes closer to practical deployment.
“Advancing our nation’s hypersonic capabilities is a critical national imperative, and this was an important step forward,” said Wes Kremer, president of Raytheon Missiles & Defense, a Raytheon Technologies business. “Having back-to-back successful flight tests gives us even greater confidence in the technical maturity of our HAWC operational prototype.”