(Bloomberg) -- The second test flight of Lockheed Martin Corp.’s hypersonic missile prototype was marred by the weapon’s failure to transmit in-flight performance data, two people familiar with the results said, a setback for US efforts to catch up with China and Russia in a key weapons capability.
The transmission failure and loss of data in the March 13 exercise wasn’t reported in a statement issued by the US Air Force on March 24 that said the test “met several of the objectives and team engineers and testers are collecting data for further analysis.”
After being released from a B-52H bomber off the southern coast of California, the warhead successfully separated from its rocket booster and proceeded into flight. After that, however, the data link transmitting in-flight performance information failed, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing non-public information.
Telemetry data of the type that was lost is crucial to helping the Pentagon understanding the weapon’s flight characteristics. The flight team has begun a failure analysis, the people said. A key question is whether the failure was caused by a faulty data link or resulted from a flaw in the glider warhead.
The test was important because it’s the second of four that are planned for the prototype operational hypersonic missile, known as the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW. It’s the service’s top hypersonic program and meant to compete with Russian and Chinese programs that have already been successful.
Service officials want four successful flights of the prototype missile to give confidence they can declare the weapon possesses an early operational capability and proceed into production. The first test of an “All-up Round” was in December. It was a success.
The Air Force deferred additional comment to a Pentagon spokesman. The Defense Department said in a statement that “characterization of this test as a failure is inaccurate.”
“All developmental tests are opportunities for learning about the detailed operation of the system. We are still assessing the data gained from the most recent test to understand any lessons learned to further developmental maturity.”
“Due to operational security we will not comment on the detailed observations from the test,” the Pentagon added in the statement.
Still, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall acknowledged to members of the House Defense appropriation subcommittee today the test “was not a success” as the service “did not get the data we needed.”
Service program officials are “currently examining that, trying to understand what happened,” he said.
Panel chairman Rep Ken Calvert said in an interview that the US needs to get the systems deployed as “our adversaries are much further ahead than us” in hypersonics. “The Air Force by definition you’d think” would have the lead in developing the technology but “has the most frustration,” he said.
Lockheed Martin is “committed to developing hypersonic technology on an accelerated timeline to meet this critical national security need,” the company said in a statement. “We run operational scenarios in addition to traditional tests prior to going into full production which ensures the final product is safe” and reliable.
The weapon is designed to fly up to eight times the speed of sound and approximately 1,000 miles. The Congressional Research Service in a Feb. 13 report said that the Air Force had repeatedly “pushed back the timeline” for the hypersonic missile and “now states” it could be operational as soon as this autumn.
Three previous booster-test failures of a development-model ARRW derailed plans for the missile to go into production last year. They eventually succeeded. The Pentagon had hoped to declare the US’s first combat-capable hypersonic weapon by Sept. 30, 2022.
China and Russia already have the highly maneuverable weapons that can fly at extremely high speeds. Russia has deployed them during its invasion of Ukraine. A Defense Intelligence Agency official this month said China is ahead of Russia in development of hypersonic weapons and may have already deployed a weapon capable of hitting US bases in the Pacific.
China is also pursuing an intercontinental ballistic missile tipped with a hypersonic glide warhead that’s been tested since 2014, Paul Freisthler, the chief scientist for the DIA’s analysis division, told a House Armed Services subcommittee this month. In July 2021, the weapon showed it could circumnavigate the globe, he said.
ARRW is one of three major Pentagon hypersonic weapons programs and the one originally seen as the most advanced. The Navy and Army have their own projects.
(Updates in paragrahs 10 and 11 with Air Force Sec Kendall and Rep. Ken Calvert)
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