Air Force Materiel Command boss Gen. Arnold Bunch appears on a panel as part of AFA's 2019 Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., near Washington, D.C. Staff photo by Mike Tsukamoto.
As the Air Force closes in on flight tests of its hypersonic Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon and the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon, the service has to figure out ways to expand its traditional test and training ranges to accommodate the missiles’ high speeds, Air Force Materiel Command chief Gen. Arnold Bunch said in a recent interview.
“As we look at testing advanced systems, on the ranges we have, I can’t get the standoff [needed] in some cases,” Bunch told Air Force Magazine at AFA’s 2019 Air, Space & Cyber Conference. “The systems are so much more advanced now, and we’re moving at such speeds that it really shrinks the time you’ve got to get what you need to get done.”
Hypersonic systems can move at Mach 5 or faster, meaning a ground speed of nearly 4,000 mph. At such speeds, even the largest contiguous training ranges in the US could be crossed in a matter of minutes.
The Air Force is moving as quickly as possible to secure training space as prototyping and demonstrations of ARRW and HCSW ramp up, Bunch said. For example, the Air Force plans to operationally flight test ARRW by the end of 2020. The weapons are expected to be initially usable in combat within the next few years.
“We’re in discussions about, can I get a water-to-land transition, or can we do that all over land and have a corridor from one range to another range for a period of time” Bunch said. “All of those are things we’re investigating.”
Corridors may run from Florida to California, or in the opposite direction, or possibly over water into the Air Force’s extensive training space in Alaska. Air Force Magazine recently reported the service is getting Global Hawks to help with long-range hypersonic tests over water.
“The great thing about doing it over water [is], you’ve got a lot of range and you can do a lot of things,” Bunch said. “The bad thing is sometimes it’s hard to capture all the data you would want and to recover all the systems.”
The X-51 hypersonic research vehicles were tested over the Pacific Ocean, but fell into the sea and could not be recovered after the tests.
Bunch said he has been trying to raise awareness that as USAF systems achieve faster speeds and longer ranges, the service must protect the test and training space it has: “We cannot give up any more.”
“We as an Air Force are going to have to make sure everybody understands: for these advanced systems and what we’re doing, the ranges we’ve got to have them,” he said. The service must guard the ranges for “the ability to test these systems out and train with them.”