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The Air Force’s Hypersonic Scramjet Missile Aced Its Final Test, Beautifully

Popular Mechanics | by Darren Orf | June 9, 2023

  • Hypersonic missiles are weapons capable of traveling at speeds of Mach 5 and beyond.
  • The U.S. Air Force successfully tested and concluded its Hypersonic Airbreathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) missile, a technology demonstrator.
  • The data from the flight will influence future hypersonic efforts throughout the U.S. military.

The future of aviation is hypersonic. The U.S. Air Force is hard at work on a next-gen hypersonic bomber, and even commercial aviation is looking for ways to push planes into Mach 5 and beyond. But the most pressing issue is to counter the world’s growing (and terrifying) chorus of hypersonic weapons.

Luckily, the Air Force just wrapped up a stunning final test of scramjet-powered Hypersonic Airbreathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) missile, a program it calls the most successful of its kind in U.S. history.

On Monday, the Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced that the weapon system successfully achieved Mach 5 flight and traveled 300 nautical miles at 60,000 feet. That’s an impressive feat, though the results don’t state exactly how long the missile achieved those hypersonic speeds.

“This month’s flight added an exclamation point to the most successful hypersonic airbreathing flight test program in U.S. history,” says Walter Price, a USAF deputy on the HAWC program, in a statement. “The things we’ve learned from HAWC will certainly enhance future U.S. Air Force capabilities.”

As the name suggests, the HAWC is a concept weapon that won’t be directly loaded onto planes or bombers, but is more of a platform for building future hypersonic technologies. In fact, the Air Force is already pushing ahead with two other missile systems, including the All-Up-Round AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, which had its first successful launch off the coast of southern California on a B-52H Stratofortress back in December.

In September 2022, the Air Force announced Raytheon as the winner of its (weirdly specific) $985,348,124 contract for developing the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM). Back in July, Air & Space Forces Magazine reported that the HAWC was essentially a “technology pathfinder” for the new HACM program.

What makes the HAWC, and other missiles like it, so impressive is it’s powered by a scramjet engine, which works differently than your standard subsonic—or even ramjet— engine. Because it operates at such high speeds, the engine uses an inlet to force in supersonic compressed air (ramjets only use subsonic air through the system) before it mixes with hydrogen fuel, allowing the engine to achieve Mach 5 speeds and beyond. This excessive speed makes hypersonic missiles exceedingly deadly, as they’re capable of outrunning most modern air defense systems (a doomsday scenario the U.S. is also trying to mitigate).

Although this is the final test for the HAWC system, the Air Force will take the lessons and data gleaned from its successful tests into a new program unimaginatively titled More Opportunities with HAWC, or MOHAWC, while also influencing future platforms like HACM.

“The HAWC program created a generation of new hypersonic engineers and scientists,” says HAWC program manager Andrew Knoedler in the statement. “HAWC also brought a wealth of data and progress to the airbreathing hypersonic community.”

That progress will be needed if the U.S. military hopes to match the might of other hypersonic missile programs currently in development around the world.

Source: The Air Force’s Hypersonic Scramjet Missile Aced Its Final Test, Beautifully (msn.com)

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