Home Air US Air Force completes first free flight test of HAWC hypersonic weapon

US Air Force completes first free flight test of HAWC hypersonic weapon

HAWC first free flight test
Photo: DARPA

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the US Air Force completed a free flight test of the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) last week.

As revealed by DARPA, 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).

The first flight test milestone comes almost exactly a year after DARPA and the Air Force completed captive carry tests of two HAWC variants, developed by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.

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 US military.”

Goals of the mission were: vehicle integration and release sequence, safe separation from the launch aircraft, booster ignition and boost, booster separation and engine ignition, and cruise. All primary test objectives were met.

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 US 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, US Air Force, and Navy flight test personnel who persevered through the pandemic to make the magic happen.”

“This is a history-making moment, and this success paves the way for an affordable, long-range hypersonic system in the near term to strengthen national security,” said Colin Whelan, vice president of Advanced Technology at Raytheon Missiles & Defense, a Raytheon Technologies business. “This test proves we can deliver the first operational hypersonic scramjet, providing a significant increase in warfighting capabilities.”

HAWC is just one of several hypersonic weapon programs currently run by Pentagon. the navy and the army are pursuing the Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) offensive hypersonic strike capability and the Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW), while the air force is testing the Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW). Most recently, the US Air Force awarded Boeing and Lockheed Martin competing contracts for work on the SCIFIRE hypersonic cruise missile program, which will be a joint undertaking between the US and Australia.