The Army’s New Mach 5 Missile Hits Targets at 1,000 Miles in 20 Minutes
A throttleable motor and off-road operability make the hypersonic OpFires system the ideal counter to the medium-range threat.
The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is set to begin building the first OpFires intermediate-range missile.
OpFires will allow the U.S. Army to strike time-sensitive targets up to 1,000 miles away.
The missile’s development is possible because of the end of the INF Treaty on nuclear weapons.
The ground-launched weapon only exists because Russia violated a missile treaty.
The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is preparing to build a working copy of the new OpFires hypersonic missile. OpFires, destined for the U.S. Army, will give the service the ability to strike targets with a fleeting window of opportunity, covering the weapon’s 1,000-mile range in 20 minutes.
OpFires recently passed a preliminary design review that resulted in a “comprehensive design and test plan,” according to a DARPA statement. The R&D shop will now advance the program to “full-scale missile fabrication, assembly, and flight testing from a launch vehicle.” Flight testing is scheduled to begin in 2022.
Once OpFires is proven to work, DARPA will hand off the whole program to the Army to make the next move.
The Army envisions OpFires as a so-called boost glide weapon system. The OpFires hypersonic glide vehicle sits atop a large, truck-mounted missile. When launched, the missile accelerates to hypersonic speeds, carrying the glide vehicle to very high altitudes, but remaining within Earth’s atmosphere. Instead of entering low-Earth orbit like a ballistic missile warhead, the OpFires glide vehicle levels off and then glides down onto targets at hypersonic speeds.
It’s not clear how fast OpFires will eventually go, but at Mach 5, a glide vehicle travels at 3,836 miles per hour—fast enough to go the full 1,000 miles in less than 20 minutes. The Russian Avangard boost glide weapon, for example, travels at Mach 20 using an ICBM booster.
OpFires envisioned by DARPA attacking air defense missile sites.
According to DARPA, OpFires could be used to penetrate existing air defenses unprepared to engage hypersonic weapons. It could, for example, “kick in the door” for crewed aircraft, smashing air defense systems in their path as they fly on to bomb a critical target. The Army could also use OpFires to attack the targets themselves.
Lockheed Martin envisions mounting OpFires to a heavy truck chassis and transporting it on a C-130 Hercules transport. That could result in the ability for OpFires to conduct “raids,” flying into remote airstrips near the edge of the battle area, firing off its missiles, and then quickly departing. Today, that mission is practiced by HIMARS rocket crews, but OpFires would allow the Army to shoot much farther into the enemy’s interior.
OpFires is technically an intermediate-range weapon, and until recently, it would have been banned under the 1987 Treaty on Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF), which outlawed medium- and intermediate-range missiles.
In early 2020, Lockheed Martin began work on Operational Fires (OpFires) weapon system integration under a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) contract. OpFires is an innovative ground-launched system that enables a hypersonic boost glide missile system to penetrate modern enemy air defenses and rapidly engage time-sensitive targets.
Hypersonic missiles typically go one speed: as fast as they can. OpFires features a unique throttleable booster rocket motor that can vary its thrust to deliver payloads across the medium-range spectrum without energy bleed maneuvers. Less time in the air enhances survivability and mission success.
OpFires is designed with the soldier in mind. For the user, it operates off-road, supports rapid loading and reloading and can shoot and scoot within minutes. And it travels light.
“OpFires goes where the warfighter goes,” said Tactical Missiles Advanced Programs Director Steven Botwinik. “It’s transportable by C-130 and deploys without an entourage of unique support systems like cranes, radars and cooling and heating systems.”
For the maintainer, it offers flexibility. Lockheed Martin is integrating OpFires with existing logistics vehicle fleets. The self-contained OpFires system is designed to integrate with the Palletized Load System, enabling them to transform into an OpFires launcher within minutes—and back again—with no specialized tools or vehicle re-configuration.
OpFires engineers are designing OpFires with affordability in mind by reusing proven precision fires subsystems. For example, they are adapting proven High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) electronics and precision fires subsystems for interoperability with U.S. Army Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System infrastructure.
“In the short term, this commonality approach speeds development while reducing development cost and risk,” Botwinik said. “Over the long term it delivers substantial cost savings because all vested programs benefit when one of them upgrades a shared subsystem.”
Lockheed Martin and its government and industry partners are on track to begin integrated flight testing in late 2021.
The U.S. left the treaty in 2019 after it determined Russia violated the terms with the deployment of the 9M729 Iskander K cruise missile. Both countries are now free to build the previously banned types of missiles.
Unlike programs in China and Russia, most U. S. hypersonic weapons are to be conventionally armed. As a result, U. S. hypersonic weapons will likely require greater accuracy and will be more technically challenging to develop than nuclear-armed Chinese and Russian systems. Indeed, according to one expert, “a nuclear-armed glider would be effective if it were 10 or even 100 times less accurate [than a conventionally-armed glider]” due to nuclear blast effects. According to open-source reporting, the United States has a number of major offensive hypersonic weapons and hypersonic technology programs in development, including the following:
- U.S. Navy—Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS);
- U.S. Army—Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW);
- U.S. Air Force—AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW, pronounced “arrow”);
- DARPA—Tactical Boost Glide (TBG);
- DARPA—Operational Fires (OpFires); and
- DARPA—Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC, pronounced “hawk”).
These programs are intended to produce operational prototypes, as there are currently no programs of record for hypersonic weapons. Accordingly, funding for U.S. hypersonic weapons programs is found in the Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation accounts, rather than in Procurement.