US Missile Defense Agency has entered into a secretive contract with Stratolaunch to boost US hypersonic defenses. Image: Stratolaunch

The US Missile Defence Agency (MDA) signed a feasibility study contract this month with Stratolaunch to develop the Talon-A hypersonic test vehicle to simulate Russian and Chinese hypersonic weapons.

Daniel Millman, chief technology officer of Stratolaunch, stated that the company aims to provide the MDA with “a threat-representative and threat-replicating target that allows them to understand how to engage and intercept hypersonic threats.”

He did not reveal further details about the company’s contract with the MDA. Hypersonic weapons are designed to defeat current missile defense systems by flying at five times the speed of sound and performing evasive maneuvers during their terminal phase.

Stratolaunch is now in the process of developing its Talon-A hypersonic testbed, which aims to make hypersonic testing more routine. It is a highly-instrumented Mach-6 vehicle designed to collect flight data during testing. At present, the company is building two such vehicles, namely TA-0 and TA-1.

They are designed to be launched from the company’s Roc carrier aircraft, are capable of long-duration hypersonic flight and can perform autonomous landing and take-off from conventional runways.

Stratolaunch aims to start power-on testing of its Talon-A test vehicles by year-end, conduct hypersonic test flights in 2022, and start hypersonic testing services for government and commercial customers in 2023.

Stratolaunch’s Roc carrier aircraft. Image: Stratolaunch

Stratolaunch was founded in 2011 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and aerospace designer Burt Rutan. The company is a privately-funded venture to develop an air-launched space transportation system that can cut high costs and reduce risks of launching both cargo and human crews to low Earth orbit.

The MDA and Stratolaunch contract is the latest move in US efforts to develop hypersonic weapons and countermeasures. On October 28, the US successfully tested a hypersonic booster motor, following a series of failed hypersonic weapons tests. Those include a test on October 21, when a booster rocket carrying a hypersonic weapon failed.

The US tested its AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) on July 28 but the missile failed to launch. The first test of the AGM-183A ARRW on April 5 failed as the missile did not launch. In 2011, the US did successfully test its Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW) as part of its Prompt Global Strike program.

The recent setbacks prompted an admission from US Space Force General David Thompson, Vice Chief of Space Operations, that the US has fallen behind China and Russia in developing hypersonic weapons.

The US Army is not slated to field its first hypersonic weapon until 2024, while the US Navy aims to arm a destroyer with hypersonic weapons in 2025 and equip its Virginia-class submarines with them in 2028.

In contrast, China has been testing hypersonic weapons since 2014, and has fielded the DF-17 hypersonic missile since 2019, which can carry nuclear or conventional anti-ship warheads.

China flaunts its hypersonic prowess in the Dongfeng-17 hypersonic glider during a military parade in Beijing in a file photo. Photo: AFP

Further, China tested a hypersonic weapon on July 27 this year, which circled the globe and launched hypersonic warheads against test targets in mainland China and the South China Sea.

Russia is also in the hypersonic game. In 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled Russia’s 3M22 Tsirkon hypersonic weapon alongside five other “superweapons.” Following that, on October 4, Russia conducted a successful test firing of the 3M22 Tsirkon from a submarine and another test on November 18 from a surface warship.

In light of these developments, the rapid deployment of hypersonic weapons by the US, China and Russia has sparked fears of a hypersonic arms race between the three major military powers.