Photo represents an example of a digital tool used for assembly processes at Lockheed Martin’s recently opened Missile Assembly Building 4 in Courtland, Ala. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

The US Air Force’s AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) — essentially a long range hypersonic missile — has yet to make a successful flight.

Recently, the missile’s rocket motor failed to ignite after it was released by a B-52 during a test in July. But while it did not meet all flight objectives, the Air Force saved face by saying that it demonstrated several first-time events.

Nevertheless, in the race to match Russian and China’s hypersonic weapons, Lockheed Martin announced the opening of a new “smart” factory in Alabama where the ARRW will be manufactured, along with hypersonic systems for the Army and Navy, Air Force Magazine reported.

The 65,000-square-foot facility, to be called Missile Assembly Building 4 (MAB 4), in Courtland, Ala., will also be used to build the Army’s Long Range Hypersonic Weapon and the Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) missile.

Those two systems have major components in common, including the hypersonic glide body vehicle itself.

A military that gains hypersonic missiles can strike with shorter warning times, hit targets without regard to air defenses, and coordinate strikes across much greater width and depth, analysts say.

The news came as Russia announced it had successfully test-fired a prospective hypersonic missile from a nuclear submarine for the first time.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the infamous Zircon missile was launched from the Severodvinsk submarine and hit a designated mock target in the Barents Sea, Associated Press reported.

The Zircon is not only causing a stir at the Pentagon because of its speed and lethality, but also because the Russians appear to be much further ahead technologically.

Previously, the US Air Force was a partner on the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon project, or HCSW, but decided in February 2020 to pursue the ARRW exclusively.

The move “represents Lockheed Martin’s commitment to establishing northern Alabama as the base of the company’s hypersonic strike programs,” the company said. MAB 4 is actually the second facility at the site for building the CPS.

Master Sgt. John Malloy and Staff Sgt. Jacob Puente, both from 912th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, secure the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon as it is loaded under the wing of a B-52H Stratofortress at Edwards Air Force Base. (Air Force photo by Giancarlo Casem)

Air Force leaders at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference in September said a root cause analysis of the ARRW’s failure in a July test is still underway.

The missile was originally to fly before the end of 2020 but has only succeeded in captive-carry tests so far.

Getting the missile into production by the end of fiscal 2022, as the service has long planned, will require a “quick resolution” to the July failure and two successful flight tests, USAF’s program executive officer for weapons Brig. Gen. Heath A. Collins said.

If the root cause analysis is “prolonged” or drives an “excessive … redesign” it will affect the Air Force’s ability to make the next test window, Collins said.

The Air Force has requested US$161 million in the fiscal 2022 budget for 12 missiles.

The new facility is one of four “intelligent factory” sites Lockheed Martin is opening this year.

In August, it opened one at its SkunkWorks© advanced development unit in Palmdale, Calif., for manufacture of secret prototype and operational systems, presumably unmanned vehicles, and the Air Force’s new Next Generation Air Dominance system.

Skunk Works head Jeff A. Babione told reporters that Lockheed Martin will build the initial examples of ARRW at Palmdale then hand off production to the company’s Missiles and Fire Control unit in Alabama.  

The MAB 4 “integrates critical digital transformation advancements, such as robotic thermal protection application capabilities; smart torque tools and mixed-reality capabilities for training and virtual inspection,” the company said.

Meanwhile, the Russian test marked Zircon’s first launch from a submarine. It previously has been repeatedly test-fired from a navy frigate, most recently in July.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Zircon would be capable of flying at nine times the speed of sound and have a range of 1,000 kilometers (620 miles). Putin has emphasized that its deployment will significantly boost Russian military capability.

Officials said Zircon’s tests are to be completed later this year and it will be commissioned by the Russian navy in 2022.

China has two lethal hypersonic missiles.

The first one, Dong Feng-17 (DF-17), is a medium-range missile or MRBM system equipped with an HGV. It is capable of carrying conventional or nuclear weapons and has a reported speed of Mach 5-10.

With a range of 1,800-2,500km and a launch weight of 15,000kgs, the DF-17 is a nightmare for all adversaries.

As previously reported in Asia Times, the DF-17 doesn’t even need a warhead. If launched at an aircraft carrier, the force of the weapon alone, would tear a whole right through it, likely rendering it out of action.

The second is the DF-ZF HGV that can travel at speeds between Mach 5-10. It is apparently capable of performing “extreme maneuvers” to evade enemy defenses.

Sources: Air Force Magazine, Associated Press, Eurasian Times, The Hill