The US Military Quietly Tested a Hypersonic Missile Last Month


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Militaries around the world are hyped up for hypersonic missiles, but the US has been seen as behind the times following a series of failed tests in 2021. However, CNN now reports that the US successfully tested a Lockheed Martin hypersonic missile last month, but it kept the news quiet to avoid further antagonizing Russia. This comes amid reports that Russia has used its own hypersonic missile system in Ukraine, making it clear the race to faster weapons has already begun. 

The hypersonic missiles in development in the US, Russia, and China come in various forms, and the term itself can be confusing. Almost all active missile systems are technically hypersonic, reaching speeds of Mach 5 (roughly 3,836 mph) or higher. And that’s nothing compared to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which launch on a ballistic trajectory that takes them to the edge of space before they come screaming back down at speeds up to Mach 20. 

The Lockheed Martin system tested last month is known as the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC), which is distinct from the defense contractor’s Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon that failed multiple tests in 2021. HAWC and similarly advanced missiles are more accurately described as hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs). Whereas a traditional missile can reach hypersonic speeds, its ability to maneuver is limited, and ICBMs can only reach high speeds after arcing through the upper atmosphere. 

A Russian Kinzhal hypersonic missile mounted to a MiG aircraft.

The test took place in mid-March — the Pentagon won’t get more specific than that, so we can’t be certain if the test took place before or after Russia used its hypersonic Kinzhal missile in Ukraine. However, the Kinzhal is just a beefed-up version of an existing weapon without an air-breathing engine. The HAWC was carried on a B-52 bomber, which launched the weapon with conventional boosters before the air-breathing scramjet took over to boost it to Mach 5 (or higher). Again, the military won’t disclose the maximum speed, saying only that it traveled 300 miles at an altitude of 65,000 feet. 

Even at the lower end of hypersonic velocities, the test would only have taken a few minutes, which helps to illustrate the appeal of these weapons: they are almost impossible to stop. The HAWC doesn’t even have an explosive payload — it relies entirely on kinetic energy to destroy its target. The US is investing heavily in HAWC and similar systems to counter Russia and China. The US Government Accountability Office says there are 70 hypersonic weapons programs currently underway, and the administration has asked for $7.4 billion to support the development of long-range weapons, including hypersonic glide vehicles.

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