DARPA Halts High-Speed, Long-Range Weapon Development Program

The Pentagon is terminating a program designed to develop a high-speed, long-range strike weapon that could be launched from the sea or the air and strike a target in less than 30 minutes — despite recently lauding the capability as “game changing.”

long-range weaponCalled ArcLight, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s program was intended to design, build and test a boost/glide vehicle that could carry a 100- to 200-pound payload over 2,000 nautical miles in less than half an hour. This system would not use nuclear weapons.

The agency “believes this program will be a ground-breaking way for the Navy and Air Force to engage deployed, time-critical targets,” states a broad agency announcement released last summer by DARPA. The BAA requested “innovative research proposals,” called for spending $17 million to develop and design this technology, and anticipated that multiple contracts would be awarded.

But DARPA’s fiscal year 2012 budget justification materials state that the ArcLight program is being terminated.

When asked why the Pentagon is ending the program, DARPA spokesman Eric Mazzacone told Inside the Pentagon that “additional development work is needed to achieve the program’s objectives.” He noted that DARPA also believed that a reassessment of the underlying technologies could help address a key research question: “How do you achieve an extremely high lift-to-drag ratio system from a non-fixed-wing vehicle?”

During FY-11, the agency is “simultaneously reassessing the program’s underlying technology needs and threshold objectives,” Mazzacone said via email. “DARPA’s current budget estimate for [FY-12] does not request future funding for ArcLight.”

DARPA’s July 7, 2010, broad agency announcement stated that these vehicles would be designed to be launched from a MK 41 Vertical Launch System compatible booster stack. The announcement stated the Navy had 8,500 VLS tubes, including those based on cruisers, destroyers and submarines.

“Deploying operational systems with an ArcLight vehicle as the payload on Navy platforms will offer a game-changing warfare capability,” the announcement states. “The ability for worldwide coverage from several ships
reduces the need for having less-capable strike assets forward deployed and enables tactical and political flexibility.”

The first phase of the program was supposed to be focused on developing a conceptual design and system requirements for an ArcLight Operation System, including an ArcLight Operational Vehicle, booster and other relevant systems. The first phase was also supposed to determine wing material requirements and develop a critical technology development plan and a concept of operations.

Responses to the July 2010 broad agency announcement were due earlier this year, with an initial closing last August. At press time (April 6), DARPA had not commented on whether any contracts were awarded in this program.

According to budget justification documents, the program was funded $2 million in FY-10 and defense officials sought $5 million for it in FY-11.

In its FY-11 budget request DARPA planned to design, build and flight test the vehicle; in contrast, the agency called for designing and evaluating the vehicle in simulation in its FY-12 request.

According to budget documents, the program’s FY-10 accomplishments consisted of conducting feasibility testing of novel material technology. Its FY-11 plans are to “conduct trade studies of vehicle shape, size, critical systems, trajectory and range estimations.” FY-11 plans also call for developing initial concept of operations and military utility analyses and critical technology development plan, and assessing and testing critical system elements including wing materials and leading edges.

The program does not have any FY-12 plans, according to the documents.

A Congressional Research Service report released last month stated the ArcLight “could serve as an alternative delivery vehicle for the mission” and would have a shorter range than the Air Force’s
Conventional Strike Missile.

Mazzacone, however, noted that the program was not a prompt global strike platform. “It was intended to essentially be a theater-based survivable system to be used in conjunction with other theater-based systems such as Tomahawk,” Mazzacone said.

Leon McKinney, the executive director and founding member of the U.S. Hypersonics Industry Team who is
not connected with this program, said that ArcLight was an “important capability.” He said even though such systems could not carry massive payloads, they could theoretically hit a lot of targets quickly to attack from a longer range.