Possible Hypersonic Test 'Balk' May Add To Poor USAF Record

An AGM-183A ARRW is prepared to be tested.
Credit: USAF

An exchange during a think-tank event in Washington on July 29 may offer an explanation for the absence of a promised U.S. Air Force hypersonic flight test in July. 

“Did we balk on a [hypersonic] test run last week?” John Venable, senior research fellow for Defense Policy at the Heritage Foundation, asked Mark Lewis, the newly announced executive director of the Emerging Technologies Institute (ETI). 

“So,” Lewis replied, “this is what I’ve heard. I have no confirmation of that. But, yeah, and it’s kind of — again, it’s all kind of frustrating."
Lewis, a scientist of hypersonic flight and former director of Defense Research and Engineering at the Defense Department, was the guest speaker at a Heritage event focused on the U.S. position in a hypersonic arms race with China and Russia. 

An Aviation Week journalist asked Lewis and Venable, the moderator, about what was causing a series of unexplained delays and botched attempts at testing the Air Force’s AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) and the DARPA/Air Force Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC). Although scheduled for first flights in 2019, neither program has performed a successful flight test. 

A navigational warning released by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency in early July alerted vessels to the possibility of two windows for a long-range missile test on the Pacific Test Range between California and Hawaii. The windows opened on July 10 and closed on July 21. Later, the Defense Department made no announcement about completing a missile test during the two windows.

A month earlier, Gen. Timothy Ray, the head of Air Force Global Strike Command, told lawmakers the ARRW program would test the AGM-183A in July, but the Air Force has so far made no announcement about such an event with two days left in the month.  

“If there have been successes there you probably would have been hearing the cheering all the way from Edwards Air Force Base,” Lewis said. “And, you know, we saw a series of flight test failures that ... I put in the category of embarrassing failures.”

The Air Force has said that an AGM-183A test vehicle failed to separate from its B-52 launch aircraft during an April 5 attempt to test the missile’s booster rocket. The HAWC program has reportedly suffered two flight test failures of a similar nature in as many attempts. 

“There's several factors [involved],” Lewis explained. “One is we don't do it enough, and we have forgotten how to do it. There's a science but there's also an art to flight test. And if you don't do it often enough, [you] forget how to do that.”

Hypersonic technology has progressed dramatically in the last two decades, Lewis said, but flight testing at hypersonic speeds still carries the risk of failure. 

“We are so risk averse,” Lewis said. “There are so many people now who can say ‘no.’ And then, of course, we battle with priorities on the flight test range. It's really a frustrating situation and it's something that frankly I think we really need to address, and we really need to fix.

“We need to be flying early, and we need to fly often, and that's why I'll come back to we need repeated access into the hypersonic flight corridor,” Lewis said. “We should be ashamed of ourselves.”

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.


We have been "testing" hypersonic weapons systems since the sixties and we don't have an operational system in 2021? Ashamed of ourselves? This is a life and death project delayed fifty years for American security and after a trillion dollars has been spent. Ashamed doesn't work for me. We need to split up the defense industry because we never got the peace dividend that was promised and maybe keep our technology right here at home instead of delivering it to China who already has an operational hypersonic weapon. May I add that a 125 lb. non-nuclear warhead is the second thing we need to be ashamed about.
I think there is no one minding the store.
When failure is not an option for the DOD testing community, the group has lost it's purpose. The insidious creep of bureaucratic narcissism has overtaken problem solving. Managers are worried more about how testing failure will impact their resume, next promotion and next job and not enough about fielding effective systems.
Gone are the days of Chuck Yeager, and the maverick daring do- We are behind nationally on hypersonic and seriously need to catch up...
I worked in hypersonic testing at Calspan in the 60's. And as I've said before -- if anyone had told me in the 60's that we wouldn't have routine hypersonic flight 60 years later i would have told them they were crazy.
"There's a science but there's also an art to flight test. And if you don't do it often enough, [you] forget how to do that.” Even in the civilian sector, what I coined, "Corporate History", is forgotten easily after about 4-5 years. So new batch's of MBA's don't know how or why things have evolved, so they make the same mistakes over again. Same with government. I've always thought we needed a history/records/study department.
The AF and Yeager were very critical of the slow progress of the XS-1 program as carried out with company pilots. Perhaps with some justification. But in an intro to Rotundo's excellent and detailed study of that program, he suggests that reading the book had given him more appreciation for what was done before the AF took over. Also, Yeager's comment when they decided to go all out in the X-1A before the 50th anniversary celebration resulted in a near disaster. Coming in hurt and perhaps still stunned a bit, Yeager said "I'll never do that again." But he sort of did with the NF-104A, partly due to system problems, but primarily because he would not follow the training of the project pilot.
The Air Force no longer has a Command dedicated to Aeronautical Systems ever since they decided to eliminate Air Force Systems Command rather than reform it. Many skilled systems engineers and procurement people either left or retired in that time period. That was also at time in which the Air Force joined into the Senior Executive Service with rewards and bonuses for superior managerial performance.
With no corresponding rewards for 'good systems engineering', most people chose a career path in 'management'. We have seen the results now for the past decade. Challenged procurements, the F-35 development that never ends, the tanker, etc, etc, etc.
Many of us old dinosaurs are hopeful that someone like General Schriever will come along and help put the Air Force back in the 'development' business.