Two weeks ago, an elite team completed the first successful free-flight test of the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) missile. Raytheon Missiles & Defense worked with Northrop Grumman to build the prototype for DARPA.
For the test, the HAWC was released from underneath the wing of an aircraft. Seconds after it deployed, the missile's solid rocket motor boosted it to supersonic speeds. The HAWC's scramjet (supersonic combustion ramjet) engine ignited and accelerated the missile to hypersonic speeds above Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound).
The scramjet engine, developed by Northrop Grumman, uses the vehicle's high speed to forcibly compress incoming air, which is then mixed with hydrocarbon fuel and ignited to propel the missile. According to Raytheon, the test validates the HAWC's ability to reach and cruise at hypersonic speeds.
The successful flight is the next step in the eventual tech transfer to the U.S. Department of Defense for the U.S. Air Force.
The HAWC's hypersonic speed and maneuverability make it difficult to detect, meaning that it could strike targets much more quickly than subsonic missiles. It also has significant kinetic energy without high explosives. The achievement paves the way for long-range hypersonic missiles that could significantly increase the Air Force's warfighting capabilities, according to Colin Whelan, Raytheon's vice president of advanced technology. Like we've seen with autonomous weapons, hypersonics has become the new frontier for advanced weaponry.
The test met all primary objectives, including the vehicle integration and release, safe separation from the aircraft, booster ignition and boost, booster separation and engine ignition and cruise.
According to DARPA, the achievement builds on previous scramjet projects, including the X-30 National Aero-Space Plane and NASA's X-43 vehicles and the U.S. Air Force's X-51 Waverider.
In June 2019, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman teamed up to integrate scramjet combustors into air-breathing hypersonic weapons. The companies are working under a $200 million HAWC program DARPA contract.