DARPA’s Operational Fires (OpFires) program has successfully executed its first flight test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Photo: DARPA

After a series of failures in its hypersonic weapons program, the United States conducted two separate successful hypersonic tests this month, a positive turn in its well-documented struggle to keep pace with rivals China and Russia.

On July 18, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced a second successful test of the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) in partnership with the US Air Force (USAF). A first successful hypersonic weapons test was conducted by the two in September 2021.

According to DARPA, air-breathing weapons use air captured from the atmosphere to achieve sustained propulsion, giving hypersonic weapons the speed and maneuverability needed to avoid air defenses and conduct quick strikes. 

DARPA says that this month’s second HAWC test used data from last year’s successful test. After release from the launch aircraft, the weapon’s first stage boosted it to the speed required to start its scramjet motor, propelling it to Mach 5 for 300 nautical miles at an altitude of 60,000 feet.

DARPA notes that flight data from this successful test will inform future air-breathing hypersonic weapons development for the US Navy (USN) and USAF.

A few days earlier, on July 13, DARPA also announced that it had conducted last week a successful test of the Operational Fires (OpFires) hypersonic missile at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

DARPA said that a USMC logistics truck with the Palletized Load System launched the OpFires missile, making any vehicle in the US inventory with the system a potential launch platform. DARPA also highlighted that the test used US Army artillery and fire control systems to launch, opening the potential for inter-service joint operations, reinforcing systems compatibility and simplifying logistical requirements.

“This is a promising step toward a transporter erector launcher on-demand capability for accurately firing medium-range missiles from highly agile, readily available logistics trucks that are already in both the US Army and US Marine Corps inventory,” noted Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Stults, the DARPA program manager for the OpFires project.

Lockheed Martin, the main contractor for the OpFires weapon, stated that it features a unique throttleable rocket booster that can change its thrust to deliver payloads at medium range without energy bleed maneuvers, reducing the airborne time of the weapon and its vulnerability to anti-air defenses.

Design image of the launcher of the ground-based hypersonic medium-range missile system Operational Fires (OpFires) using a standard heavy military truck Oshkosh HEMTT LVSR (10×10), equipped with a system of loading/unloading and transportation of palletized cargo PLS (Palletized Load System) type “multilift” Image: Lockheed Martin

As previously reported in Asia Times, the US appears to lack a strategy or doctrine for its hypersonic weapons. The US has not released information on the weapons’ use, how cost-effective they would be or how they would be incorporated into a joint or combined doctrine and operations.

However, an article by Alan Cummings in the War on the Rocks defense publication notes the possible strategic goals the US aims to achieve with its hypersonic weapons. 

First, he notes obviously that the US may deploy hypersonics to deter adversaries and reassure allies. The initial low numbers of such weapons send a potent message about US priorities and redlines in such deployments. He also notes that low-visibility deployments using land-based launchers that can be quickly surged and recovered may benefit this end.

Second, hypersonics can pressure US adversaries into signing new arms control agreements. For the US to negotiate from a position of strength and pressure near-peer rivals China and Russia to take arms control negotiations seriously, it must also develop the hypersonic capabilities that the latter are developing.

Third, hypersonics may provide new US response options against evolving counter-space capabilities. Cummings notes the US’ disproportionate dependence on space-based systems for command and control, communications, intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance makes these assets inviting targets.

Hypersonics can be used to take out enemy anti-satellite capabilities before they could be brought to bear or inflict damage before space-based systems are lost.

As most US hypersonics are armed with conventional warheads, this implies that they may be used in more tactical roles than those of China and Russia. These roles may include island defense and suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) missions.

Asia Times has previously reported on the USMC’s plans to acquire land-based Tomahawk cruise missiles, noting the advantages of land-based launchers in the South China Sea.

However, the Tomahawk is an aging 1970s subsonic design, which may not be effective against newer air defense systems. The USMC may thus opt to replace it with the OpsFires.

Land-based launchers are more survivable and cost-effective than ship-borne systems. When fielded in the territory of US allies, any strike against US land-based launchers would mark a significant escalation of hostilities.

Moreover, land-based launchers can complement air and naval power by serving as a near-constant presence in contested areas, providing operational and tactical cover for freedom of maneuver for the US and its allied forces.

In line with low-visibility deployments using mobile land-based systems, Asia Times has also reported that SEAL teams could be used for strategic reconnaissance missions, acting as covert eyes and ears for over-the-horizon targeting for land-based launchers.

For example, a SEAL team deployed on one of the South China Sea’s many features can use advanced sensors and targeting capabilities against passing enemy warships, relaying targeting data to land-based launchers, which would open fire on the target.

In such scenarios, land-based hypersonics would help penetrate enemy air defenses in the South China Sea, enabling the destruction of critical enemy targets. This March, Asia Times reported that China has fully militarized three of its islands in the South China Sea, arming them with anti-ship and anti-aircraft weapons.

The China-occupied Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. Image: People’s Daily

Defense Post reported previously that China had deployed its advanced HQ-9B air defense system on Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, and Mischief Reef in the South China Sea. According to the source, the HQ-9B is effective against supersonic aircraft, helicopters, cruise missiles and drones at an altitude of up to 30,000 meters, making it one of the most advanced weapons of its type.

US air-launched hypersonics may also figure prominently in SEAD missions, given their purported ability to evade current and future air defense systems by going against these systems themselves.

According to an article in the National Defense magazine, the US is looking into how to deliver air-launched cruise missiles against high-end integrated missile defense systems, says Mike White, principal director for hypersonics in the Office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering.

Similarly, in an article in Air Force Magazine, US Army Chief of Staff General James McConville mentioned that hypersonics could destroy enemy air defenses and pave the way for subsequent USN and USAF aircraft strikes.

The HAWC fitted with a radiation-seeking seeker head can potentially replace or supplement the current AGM-88 Homing Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) in US service, currently the US mainstay weapon for SEAD missions.