A hypersonic weapon being developed by the U.S. military was destroyed four seconds after its launch from a test range in Alaska early on Monday after controllers detected a problem with the system, the Pentagon said.
The Advanced Hypersonic Weapon is being developed as a joint project between the Sandia National Laboratory, Army Space and Missile Defense Command and the Army Forces Strategic Command to form the Pentagon’s Prompt Global Strike initiative. It includes a glide body mounted on a three-stage, solid-propellant booster system known as STARS, for Strategic Target System.
The Defense Department wants a weapon that can strike targets anywhere in the world within hours using a conventionally armed missile traveling at Mach 5 or 3,500 miles an hour.
The missile would be used to hit terrorist targets identified on satellites thousands of miles away or weapons of mass destruction being moved in open ground that only have a small window within which to strike.
The mission was aborted to ensure public safety, and no one was injured in the incident, which occurred shortly after 4 a.m. EDT at the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska, said Maureen Schumann, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Defense Department.
“We had to terminate,” Schumann said. “The weapon exploded during takeoff and fell back down in the range complex,” she added.
The incident caused an undetermined amount of damage to the launch facility, Schumann said.
It was a setback for the U.S. program, which some analysts see as countering the growing development of ballistic missiles by Iran and North Korea but others say is part of an arms race with China, which successfully tested a hypersonic system in January.
The Wu-14 missile is being developed by China to launch nuclear warheads or to strike ships and is being designed to travel at speeds of up to Mach 10 or 8,000 miles-an-hour.
A Chinese test of the Wu-14 three weeks ago failed in similar circumstances to the American test.
While hypersonic weapons are unlikely to be fielded for a decade, the fact that Washington and Beijing were both testing the weapons indicated there was a real potential for an arms race, said James Acton, a defense analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
In a previous test in November 2011, the US craft had successfully flown from Hawaii to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, she said. On Monday, it was supposed to fly from Alaska to the Kwajalein Atoll.
The Air Force has said it intends to study and invest in hypersonic weapons going forward, making that one of the key technology priorities laid out in its recent 30-year strategy.