Mechanical Glitch ‘Jinxes’ US Hypersonic Missile Program; Army Looks For Fix To Upend Russia, China

After a spate of failed tests that put the US ‘Dark Eagle’ hypersonic program under the scanner, a senior official recently revealed a “mechanical engineering problem” with the launcher.

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Doug Bush, the head of Army acquisition, recently revealed to Breaking Defense. “It’s a launcher problem,” he said at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California, earlier this month. However, he clarified that the military was working on a new plan, and a potential delivery could likely be made within the next six months.

The US Army and Navy have jointly developed Long-Range Hypersonic Weapons (LRHWs), or Dark Eagle as the ground service refers to them. The Army decided to delay fielding the weapon from the end of September to the end of the calendar year due to a string of pre-launch test failures that occurred during the past few years.

The pre-flight checks necessitated the cancellation of a crucial flight test scheduled for September 6, significantly reducing the deployment schedule. Later, due to another scrubbed test in late October, the goal to field the system by the end of this calendar year was abandoned.

Despite testing some of its components in earlier live launches, the service has not yet conducted its first full-up live-fire test of this missile. Only now, after three failed test launches in March, September, and October, the Army has revealed it was a mechanical problem.

“There’s no new science; it’s just a mechanical engineering problem to ensure that missile works with that launcher because both were new and normally you don’t do it that way,” Dough stated. Assistant Secretary of the Army Bush did not detail the mechanical engineering problem with the launcher.

The United States’ efforts to narrow the technological gap with China and Russia in the hypersonic program faced a significant setback as the schedule to field the weapon has been constantly pushed further. The Dark Eagle is intended to become the first hypersonic weapon in the US Army’s arsenal.

The US Navy and US Army jointly executed the launch of a common hypersonic glide body (C-HGB) from the Pacific Missile Range Facility, Kauai, Hawaii, on March 19, 2020. (US Navy photo)

Through all three pre-test failures, the US Army has maintained a similar stance and emphasized that the test could not take place due to trouble in pre-flight checks. While the statements did not specify the reason behind the test’s cancellation, they prompted concerns about the program’s timeline and whether the Army can declare the weapon as combat-ready.

However, with Doug’s recent statement, at least the real elephant in the room has been revealed, and work in place to get past the testing roadblocks appears. Dough said the US Army’s new strategy separates missile and launcher testing so that delays in one won’t affect the other’s progress. 

Moreover, the Army’s efforts to “build confidence over time” and ensure the launcher issue has been resolved will also be concentrated on smaller-scale, subcomponent testing. 

He added that the Army weapon may be ready for another full-scale test by April or May, and a successful test might result in it being declared operational. However, he did not specify the weapon’s concrete aspirational fielding date.

US Army’s Dark Eagle Hypersonic Weapon

The Army aims for Dark Eagle to have a potent and exact strike weapon that can swiftly engage distant high-value targets, offering a significant advantage in evading air defenses.

Dark Eagle is a trailer-launched, intermediate-range missile with a projected range of more than 1,700 miles. Its incredible top speed of Mach 17, or 3.6 miles per second, is what it is intended to accomplish.

A Dark Eagle battery comprises four trailer-based launchers, each accommodating two canister missiles. These launchers are transported on M870 trailers, towed by eight-wheeled M983A4 HEMTT tractor-trailer trucks. In addition, a command vehicle with six wheels serves as the Battery Operations Center, supervising the Dark Eagle system’s operations.

Dark Eagle’s unique design includes an unpowered hypersonic boost-glide vehicle perched atop a rocket booster. The rocket booster propels the conical-shaped hypersonic vehicle to an ideal speed and height before being released. After that, it descends to its destination at hypersonic speeds, defined as anything exceeding Mach 5 along a comparatively short, atmospheric flight path. 

US defense giant Lockheed Martin is tasked with serving as the system integrator for the Army’s hypersonic capability, overseeing the seamless deployment of this advanced technology via a mobile truck launcher.

For the United States, meeting the revised schedule is critical. The glacial speed at which hypersonic weapon development is proceeding has given rise to considerable concern, especially considering the substantial progress made by its international rivals.