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Video Above: Air War in 2050 - Air Force Research Lab Commander, Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

Current Air Force Research Laboratory “basic research” is already beginning to shape the materials and configurations likely to inform hypersonic weapons construction in the coming decades, as far away as 10 or 20 years. … while also generating near-term results leading to a first-of-its-kind breakthrough firing of the hypersonic Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon from a B-52.

An artist's illustration of an Air Force B-52 Stratofortress carrying four hypersonic AGM-183 Air-launched Rapid Response Weapons. Developed by Lockheed Martin, the boost-glide weapon is propelled to a maximum speed of more than Mach 5 by a rocket motor before gliding to its target. Lockheed Martin illustration.

An artist's illustration of an Air Force B-52 Stratofortress carrying four hypersonic AGM-183 Air-launched Rapid Response Weapons. Developed by Lockheed Martin, the boost-glide weapon is propelled to a maximum speed of more than Mach 5 by a rocket motor before gliding to its target. Lockheed Martin illustration.

Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon

Ongoing basic research experiments with the realm of possibility with the aim of uncovering breakthrough or “disruptive” technologies able to change the paradigm for future war. Although of course AFRL innovators often harvest for near-term applications when possible, current research in the areas such as the exploration of new composite materials, weapons shapes and configurations, thermal management and efforts to manage the air-flow or “boundary layer” surrounding hypersonic flight are all beginning to show promise.

Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle, Commanding General of the Air Force Research Lab told Warrior in a special conversation that their scientists are now intensely focuses upon basic research in the realm of hypersonics, with a specific mind to finding paradigm-changing materials, guidance systems and explosives. Much of the collaborative efforts, Pringle explained, involve key partnerships between the AFRL and allied nations, industry collaborators and academic partnerships with universities.

For instance, should the “air flow” surrounding a hypersonic projectile be “laminar” or smooth, the weapon is more likely to stay on course to its target at speeds five times the speed of sound. However, turbulent air flow can cause molecules to move in the immediate area surrounding the weapons, and greatly impact temperatures needed to sustain hypersonic flight. One of the large reasons there is so much exploration of new composite materials is that scientists continue to search for newer, more heat resistant combinations of chemicals, composites and materials to increase the probability that a hypersonic weapon can sustain its trajectory or even adjust in flight to hit moving targets.

As part of this effort, the AFRL is partnered with NASA, Australia and various university partners.

Video Above: Air War in 2050 - Air Force Research Lab Commander on Hypersonics

“As recently as the 21st of March of this year, we conducted an experiment at NASA Wallops Flight Facility. We had a boundary layer turbulence bulk flight experiment, which successfully launched,” Pringle said.

“What this did is it helped inform the research at the boundary layer where the air is so much more turbulent. We were looking at some complex geometries that are different from the systems that we have today. By doing these kinds of experiments, by partnering in these ways, and basic research, then we're informing the shapes of the weapons and the aircraft and the flight systems that we have in the future. So basic research is near and dear to our hearts and something that we have invested in for a long time,” Pringle said.

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Along with these longer-term-focused areas of basic research, AFRL weapons developers and scientists are also intensifying a current effort to align with the operational community and quickly transition technologies which may show promise in the near term. For instance, Pringle explained that the recent successful firing of the service’s Air Launched Rapid Response Hypersonic Weapon (ARRW) from a B-52 came to life in large measure through innovations developed and matured by the AFRL.

ARRW

An artist concept of the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) shows the hypersonic missile after launching from a B-52 bomber, encapsulated in a rocket that accelerates it to hypersonic speed

“The booster design was enabled by a lot of AFRL technologies that we had transitioned, including things such as propellants, composite cases, and integral attachment plugs,” Pringle said.

The successful ARRW firing, which breaks new ground in the area of operational hypersonics, relied upon AFRL developed “tactically compliant composite cases and air launched solid thrust rocket boosters,” Pringle said. These technologies were able to quickly transition into the operational realm due to ongoing partnerships between the AFRL, its academic partners and the services’ acquisition arm or Program Executive Office focused on nearer term development.

“The S&T program has been partnered with the PEO for a long period of time. In fact, there have been a number of transitions that have been put into the program that has been called ARRW….a tactically compliant composite case and an air launch solid thrust rocket booster,” Pringle told Warrior.

While details related to many of the specific functions related to these innovations may not be available for understandable security reasons, a new “composite case” may well pertain to emerging technologies able to improve thermal management of a hypersonic projectile and effectively regulate its temperature to ensure smoother flight.

“Our scientists and engineers have really been partnered with them (the PEO) since the beginning of this program. And we're continuing to look at the next generation of heat and thermal properties so that we can get these hypersonics to go even faster, or fly further and to address more operator challenges,” Pringle explained.

A U.S. Air Force-52H Stratofortress successfully released an AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) off the Southern California coast, May 14, demonstrating a new ability to attack air and ground targets at paradigm-changing speeds with precision.

“Following separation from the aircraft, the ARRW's booster ignited and burned for expected duration, achieving hypersonic speeds five times greater than the speed of sound,” an Air Force statement said.

As a boost-glide weapon, the ARRW skips off the upper boundaries of the earth’s atmosphere before using its speed of descent to propel itself down onto a target. The Air Force decision to buy the weapon in 2022 suggests that the weapon is fast reaching new levels of maturity as it progresses toward operational service. This successful firing would seem to indicate that developers have managed to address certain challenges known to be central to achieving successful hypersonic flight.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President - Center for Military Modernization