Ballistic missiles have been the ultimate in long-range weapons for the last half-century, able to reach almost anyplace on Earth within an hour (sometimes less). On Thursday the U.S. Army tested a bomb that can reach ballistic missile speeds and more importantly, has directional controls.
The Pentagon didn’t give specifics about the weapon’s range or speed. Called the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, or AHW, it was launched from Hawaii and hit a target in Kwajalein Atoll, some 2,500 miles away in about a half hour.
Hypersonic speeds are defined as faster than five times the speed of sound, which is about 768 miles per hour at sea level. If this was truly a hypersonic flight that means the AHW was moving at least 3,800 miles per hour. At that speed it could hit any target on earth in three hours or less. The AHW is part of a program called Prompt Global Strike, and the goal is to build a weapon that can reach its target in an hour or less. The Congressional Research Service reports that some $240 million has been spent on the program so far.
The test was for gathering data on aerodynamics, navigation, guidance and control, and thermal protection technologies, according to a Department of Defense press release. The weapon is a gliding vehicle, launched a three-stage rocket to suborbital altitude. Unlike a ballistic missile it doesn’t travel in a long parabolic arc. The gliding gives it the ability to steer.
This isn’t the first hypersonic vehicle the military has tested. In August, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency flew a hypersonic glider, launched from a rocket, which was supposed to go from Vandenberg Air Force Base on a 4,000-mile trip. That glider failed and was lost, but it provided valuable data used in the AHW test.