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

(Washington, D.C.) A mobile launcher armed with eight new high-speed Long Range Hypersonic Weapons will load up onto an Air Force C-17, deploy to a high-threat forward combat zone to set up, attack, and leave … by 2023

The urgency of the Pentagon’s need to accelerate and deploy hypersonic weapons is serious, according to senior U.S. weapons developers citing extreme concern about Russian and Chinese weapons

“We are number 3 in this race. We have to catch up,” Robert Strider, Deputy, Army Hypersonic Project Office, told an audience Aug. 11 at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville Ala., referring to fast-emerging Russian and Chinese progress with hypersonic missiles.

Dark Eagle - Long Range Hypersonic Weapon

This circumstance, well known and often discussed by Pentagon leaders, is likely a primary inspiration for the Army’s current success in developing an emerging weapon called “Dark Eagle.” Called the Long Range Hypersonic Weapon, the new missile will be ready for war by 2023.

Hypersonic Weapons

In March 2021, the U.S. Army began delivering the first prototype hypersonic equipment to Soldiers with the arrival of two training canisters. Hypersonic weapons, capable of flying at speeds greater than five times the speed of sound (Mach 5+), are a new capability that provide a unique combination of speed, maneuverability and altitude to defeat time-critical, heavily-defended and high value targets. Hypersonics is part of the Army’s number one modernization priority of Long Range Precision Fires, and is one of the highest priority modernization areas the Department of Defense is pursuing to ensure continued battlefield dominance. Later in 2021, the Army will deliver all additional ground equipment for the Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) prototype battery. LRHW battery fielding will complete in Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 with the delivery of live missile rounds. (Courtesy Photo)

By this time, Strider explained, the new LRHW will be able to travel aboard an Air Force C-17 to a hostile forward location, set up for a launch and destroy enemy targets at hypersonic speeds before returning to home base. 

This level of independent warfare ability with hypersonic missiles, expected by 2023, will be preceded by a series of what Strider called Joint Flight Campaigns involving tests, assessments and technological refinements of the weapon.

Initial configurations include plans to deploy a missile battery of four launchers and a battery operations center. Interestingly, the LRHW is a joint Army-Navy weapon which uses a common warhead projectile for ground and maritime attack. Each launcher contains two hypersonic missiles, indicating a total of eight LRHWs in a battery.

“Our all up round is a 34-inch booster which will be common between the Army and the Navy. We will shoot exactly the same thing the Navy shoots out of a sub or ship,” Strider added.

Transportable on board an Air Force C-17, the LRHW is intended to be road-mobile such that it can hold targets at risk from multiple changing locations to maximize surprise and speed of attack.

C-17

A C-17 Globemaster III assigned to the 305th Air Mobility Wing

“We took existing trailers and modified them with hydraulics and electronics and everything associated with being a launcher. We know what these systems are capable,” Strider said.

The first shot off of a transporter is planned for Joint Flight Campaign 2 in 2022.

A deployable, road-mobile hypersonic weapon could introduce an entirely new sphere of problems and complications for an adversary.

Should a battery able to fire eight LRHWs arrive in a sensitive forward location, with an ability to quickly power up and launch from changing locations on a mobile launcher, would put enemy forces, command and control, air defenses and possibly even ships at sea at great risk of destruction. 

Should a hypersonic weapon, able to travel at five times the speed of sound, land in closer proximity to a set of enemy targets, they could destroy high-value targets much faster and make them extremely difficult if not impossible to defend against. 

Perhaps most of all, having a mobile, expeditionary hypersonic attack capability in this fashion would surely make launch locations much more survivable. An enemy might not have ability to know, find or follow any given launch point given that the LRHW weapon itself could maneuver into position. 

Hypersonics To Hit Moving Targets

The Navy’s Tomahawk missile has a two-way data link enabling it to re-route in flight as targets change and a maritime variant of the missile can adjust in flight to moving targets at sea. 

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Tomahawk Block IV Cruise Missile

A Raytheon Missiles & Defense-built Tomahawk Block IV cruise missile is launched from the USS Stethem (DDG-63)

The Navy’s SM-6 missile is equipped with a dual-mode seeker allowing the weapon itself to send forward and electromagnetic ping, analyze the return and adjust course as needed to destroy repositioning targets. 

Semi-active laser spots are regularly used to pinpoint moving targets with Hellfire missiles, artillery and even air-dropped bombs. Precision targeting against moving targets … exists, an ability to change course in flight exists and an ability for a single missile to hit more than one target with multiple re-entry vehicles exists as well.

So what about Hypersonic weapons? U.S. hypersonic missiles are already firing and soon to reach operational status, in part due to the massive push to accelerate, tests and fast-track the technology in response to Russia and China. 

Hypersonic missiles are essentially “here,” so what about an ability to hit moving targets? An ability to hit multiple targets with several warheads loaded onto a single weapon?

Army weapons developers are trying to get in front of these challenges by building in a “tech insertion” possibility in its now developing hypersonic weapon, the Long Range Hypersonic Weapon.

“We have laid out priorities for near term tech insertion. We plan to hold multiple targets at risk through communication with the weapon in flight and hit a moving or relocated target. We will also improve the warhead,” Strider said. Robert Strider, Deputy, Army Hypersonic Project Office, told an audience Aug. 11 at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville Ala.,

How might this work? Certainly the difficulty with establishing any kind of two-way data link with a weapon moving as fast as a hypersonic missile is likely to be quite difficult. 

At the same time, there may be evolving RF data links or other high speed transport layer technologies able to help a missile maneuver toward moving targets. 

One area of possibility lies in the prospect of software upgrades, as they can quickly improve weapons guidance systems and sensing functions without having to necessarily reconfigure hardware. 

This was the case with SM-6 and SM-3 upgrades as well as upgrades to fighter-jet launched air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons used by the F-22 such as the AIM-9X and AIM-120D.

F-22

A 1st Fighter Wing's F-22 Raptor from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.

Then there is also the question of autonomy or semi-autonomy. 

Weapons such as the air-launched Long-Range Anti-Ship missile are described as semi-autonomous, meaning they have built-in sensing technology coupled with an ability to discern new targets and self-correct to a degree. It certainly seems feasible that a hypersonic missile could be built with this kind of technology, yet it might need to operate differently given the speed and flight trajectory of hypersonic weapons. 

At the same time, computer processing speed can perform millions of functions per second, so data analysis could in theory be performed rather quickly should new information require a change in flight path. Networking could also play a major role, as perhaps a drone, surface ship, ground control station or even satellite could send new targeting specifics to the weapon .. in a matter of seconds. 

For instance, the Air Force even has a “collaborative bomb” technology through which bombs in flight can share data, course correct and discern new targets without needing human intervention.

This is a key reason why so many weapons developers use the term “open architecture,” an often used phrase referring to efforts to architect a given platform with standard IP protocols, interfaces and a technical infrastructure such that it can quickly accommodate new technologies and upgrades as they arrive. 

-- Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. 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 Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President