The Army's test of an advanced hypersonic weapon failed shortly after takeoff early Monday, the Pentagon said in a statement.
The failure is a setback for a key part of the Pentagon’s strategic weapon program of building arms that can attack any point on earth in 30 minutes.
The missile carrying the weapon was intentionally blown up shortly after launch, the Pentagon said.
“Due to an anomaly, the test was terminated near the launch pad shortly after liftoff to ensure public safety,” the Pentagon said in a brief statement. “There were no injuries to any personnel.”
“Program officials are conducting an extensive investigation to determine the cause of the flight anomaly.”
The test was carried out from the Kodiak Launch Complex on Kodiak Island off the southern Alaskan coast shortly after 4:00 am eastern time.
The Advanced Hypersonic Weapon is a joint effort of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command and Army Forces Strategic Command as part of the Pentagon’s Prompt Global Strike program.
The test missile was supposed to boost the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon to near space. It was then set to glide to the Reagan Test Site on the South Pacific Kwajalein Atoll at speeds of nearly 4,000 miles an hour.
The distance is around 3,900 miles and an earlier test of the missile in 2011 reached the site in around 30 minutes. The first missile test achieved speeds of around Mach 5 or about 3,600 mph.
The new missile is a key element of the Prompt Global Strike program, which seeks high-speed strike arms that can hit targets rapidly with conventional warheads. The system is designed to attack terrorists or storage or development areas used for weapons of mass destruction and missiles that are discovered and must be struck quickly.
Pentagon spokeswoman Maureen Schumann said Sunday night the upcoming test would focus on “hypersonic boost-glide technologies”—ultra-high speed maneuvering atmospheric vehicle know-how.
Data from the test was to be used by the Pentagon to “anchor ground testing, modeling, and simulation of hypersonic flight vehicle performance and is applicable to a range of possible Conventional Prompt Global Strike concepts,” she said.
The flight test, the second for the new weapon, took place less than three weeks after China conducted a second flight test of its new Wu-14 hypersonic glide vehicle, a similar weapon system.
The Wu-14 test is part of a system that U.S. intelligence agencies say will be used to deliver nuclear weapons and possibly conventional long-range strikes against ships.
Defense analysts also have said the Wu-14 appears to be part of a Chinese version of Prompt Global Strike. The Wu-14 is said to travel at speeds of up to Mach 10 or nearly 8,000 miles per hour.
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, quoting two Chinese sources, reported last week that the Wu-14 test also was a failure. The vehicle broke up soon after launch.
A notice of the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon test was posted in the website of the Alaska Aerospace Co. that runs the Kodiak launch site earlier this month.
The company said in a press statement that the test will be designed to “collect a wide variety of data on hypersonic boost-glide technologies and to demonstrate the boost and atmospheric flight” of the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon.
“Focus during the test will be on boost and atmospheric flight performance of aerodynamics; navigation, guidance, and control; and thermal protection system technologies,” the statement said.
The Army hypersonic weapon is one of several programs of hypersonic weapons and is considered a leading candidate for future production. Another hypersonic system favored by some in the Pentagon is the X-51, a scramjet powered cruise missile-sized weapon.
Another, the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2, has had some problems in development. The X-37B space plane is also categorized as a hypersonic weapon that could be used in the Prompt Global Strike program.
Lt. Gen. David L. Mann, commander of the Army Space and Missile Defense command, said during a speech in June that the new missile is a high-interest development program for the Pentagon.
“We're very, very encouraged,” Mann said of the missile. “We executed a very successful test back in November of 2011. We're on track to execute another test in August of 2014. And then we'll see where it goes from there.”
Earlier in March, Mann told the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, being developed with Sandia National Laboratory, is “on track.”
Based on the results of the August test “we'll go ahead and, again, work closely with [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] as to what they would like us to do, what the next steps are,” Mann said. He added that a Navy version of the weapon is also being considered.
“Everything is kind of predicated on what happens after the [August] test,” he said.
Mann said Russia also is “heavily involved in looking at this kind of capability.”
A spokesman at the Kodiak Launch Complex referred questions to an Army spokesman, who could not be reached for comment.
Timothy A. Walton, a defense consultant at the Alios Consulting Group, said in a recent blog post that the Army hypersonic weapon has advanced significantly and is needed to counter and deter China’s hypersonic missiles.
“China poses a major and growing threat to U.S. joint operational access in the Asia-Pacific region,” Walton wrote in a recent article on Warontherocks.com.
“In the near term, the U.S. Army should continue developing the promising and relatively mature [Advanced Hypersonic Weapon] program, which has a clear objective,” Walton said. “It should also prepare for its swift transition into a formal, accelerated program of record—perhaps through the joint urgent operational need process—that can operationally deploy an actual weapon system within five years.”
The weapon also “can serve as a crucial Army contribution to the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific and the counter-[Anti-Access/Area-Denial] fight.”
Update: This story and headline have been updated to reflect the failure of the test.