The US military's latest test of the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon ended with a premature bang this week, with officials having to hit the self-destruct button just four seconds after blast-off. Though designed to travel at around five times the speed of sound to take out any target in the world, as part of the US government's pledge to improve tactical defense after 9/11, the missile and its three-stage booster rocket only proved a danger to the launch facility in Alaska, which it fell back down onto.
The Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW) is part of what the US military has dubbed the Prompt Global Strike program, the target of which is to have a weapons system that could hit anything in the world within an hour of the order being given. Designed to do for conventional weapons what ICBMs did for nuclear warheads, various possibilities of delivery are being considered for the program.
In fact, convincing others that there's no nuclear warhead onboard is a key part of the AHW project. The missile follows a endo-atmospheric non-ballistic trajectory, unlike an ICBM would, and hopefully preventing a case of mistaken nuclear identity in the process.
That, of course, assumes it works. An early test of a hypersonic glider in 2011 went according to plan, but things weren't quite so smooth this time around.
Exactly what went wrong is unclear at this stage. "Less than four seconds into the lift-off phase, we terminated the flight," Maureen Schumann, spokesperson for the Pentagon, said in a statement. "The weapon exploded during takeoff and fell back down in the range complex," she told Dispatch.
"I don’t know the exact altitude, but it was not very far," the Schumann continued.
However, the test is not being characterized as a failure, as such, instead being more grist for the engineers to mull over as the project continues. Other possibilities in the Prompt Global Strike program include kinetic weapons deployed from an orbiting platform of some sort.
Had it worked, the AHW would have glided from Alaska to the Kwajalein Atoll.