The U.S. military on Tuesday night launched three hypersonic rocket systems, each one fired out of the Nevada Test and Training Range, the Defense Department announced. The tests mark the first time hypersonic weapons have been tested in space.
All three craft achieved their stated goals, Defense officials said.
The Lockheed Martin-built Zumwalt-class destroyer, nicknamed the “Desert Eagle,” launched a warhead-carrying launcher to test fire two Naval Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 123 (NAVER-123) Syringa 500s (two, four-stage), re-entry vehicles. The remaining Syringa was launched to launch a test of Air Force hypersonic flight control algorithms aboard a Northrop Grumman X-37B, and again set its flight path to push beyond Mach 6.
“The most exciting part of this program is that the very first flight of hypersonic systems is ready to be used against the enemy,” Vice Adm. Jim Syring, director of the U.S. Strategic Command, said in a statement. “We are committed to developing credible and resilient hypersonic weapons. The successful first-time flight of hypersonic test vehicles demonstrates that these systems can return safely to Earth with minimum impact, which significantly lowers the cost and risk of delivering even more lethal capability to our troops.”
The Navy’s Zumwalt-class destroyer launched a weapon-carrying launcher Dec. 3 to test fire two Naval Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 123 (NAVER-123) Syringa 500s (two, four-stage), re-entry vehicles.
Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday’s tests represent a pivotal advancement in America’s ability to challenge the world and send American forces far faster than the speed of sound.
“Make no mistake: America’s ability to secure our interests around the world and protect our homeland will always depend on America’s ability to attack, disrupt and defeat our enemies’ enemy targets and deter potential adversaries from attacking,” Reed said in a statement. “Today’s hypersonic test is a major step forward in America’s ability to do this, and these tests send a powerful signal to allies and enemies alike.”
The hypersonic tests also put to the test the Navy’s planned hypersonic transfer vehicle — an autonomous vehicle designed to launch an unmanned hypersonic missile from a Navy cruiser, ship or submarine, and escort it to its target.
The Air Force’s X-37B reusable space plane was also tested by the space-shuttle-derived hypersonic weapon. A test of the system’s flight control algorithms, which use a non-traditional flight computer and a similar round-trip trajectory, set the X-37B on its way to a Mach 6 speed.
Northrop Grumman’s X-37B, an unmanned space plane, launched out of the same location in November 2010, its fifth flight.
The Defense Department has developed many hypersonic weapons in recent years. After flying in test flights, Defense officials said they expect to field this kind of technology to the country by around 2029.
There are various ways it could be used. For example, Northrop Grumman’s X-37B is designed to, in a sense, take over the job of the “space plane,” which U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office officials say is not effective in space.
Those officials said that drone aircraft like X-37B could be used to resupply military satellites and places in space and perhaps be used to do some sorts of reconnaissance in orbit.
Defense officials say hypersonic weapons could be a vital new capability, one that would allow the United States to engage in offensive and defensive counterspace operations against an adversary’s forces without requiring air cover.
U.S. military officials are seeking the systems as part of the ongoing national missile defense program and an increase in firepower in space for U.S. forces. However, they also recognize these weapons would not solve all of the defense department’s space problems.
For one, hypersonic weapons could have a noticeable impact on the long-term cost of the national missile defense program and could change the way that missile defense is funded in space.