Live ‘yellow-ringed’ warhead spotted on ‘canceled’ US missile

Often, a picture tells a story that goes beyond what’s on the surface, sometimes even contradicting established notions. A case in point is a snapshot that has been making rounds on the internet over the last few days. It features an air-launched missile with a distinctive yellow ring at the front. You may be wondering, what does this yellow ring signify? 

Live 'yellow-ringed' warhead spotted on 'canceled' US missile
Photo credit: USAF

In military contexts, colors serve as essential codes. In this particular instance, the yellow ring isn’t merely for aesthetics— it signifies that the warhead is active and high-explosive. However, interpretations may vary across different countries. In an American context, though, yellow typically denotes an active warhead. 

Why all this emphasis on the yellow ring, you ask? The image in question is not just another photograph. It captures an American B-52 bomber that had recently landed at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam, carrying an AGM-183A ARRW hypersonic missile, as indicated by the yellow ring. This detail adds a new dimension to the image, especially considering that the AGM-183A ARRW project concluded in March 2023.

The program exists

Contrary to the Pentagon’s assertions in March 2023 about the termination of the program, the presence of the yellow ring suggests a different scenario – the program is indeed ongoing. This conclusion was reaffirmed when Lockheed Martin announced in November 2023 that they are actively collaborating with the U.S. Air Force. The partnership is concentrated on the All-Up-Round [AUR] flight test series for ARRW. The telecom company reported the successful accomplishment of multiple missions intended to verify the missile’s end-to-end capabilities at hypersonic speeds – from launch to target impact. 

Significantly, the most recent test of an AGM-183A ARRW missile took place in December, a solid nine months after its alleged cancellation. The American authorities declared the test successful as the missile not only separated from the aircraft but also achieved a speed exceeding Mach 5 and successfully hit the predetermined target. The test was executed off the coast of Southern California, and according to official sources, the missile used was a “full prototype operational missile”.

Live 'yellow-ringed' warhead spotted on 'canceled' US missile
Photo credit: USAF

Decoding the second detail

What do we mean by an ‘operative full prototype missile’? Imagine a missile system; it has been meticulously designed, meticulously built, and rigorously tested, yet it isn’t ready for mass production. It’s this missile we’re discussing. This ‘prototype’ is an exact representation of the missile that will ultimately roll off the production line, outfitted with all the features and capabilities expected in the final product. 

The keyword here is ‘operative’. It indicates that this prototype has undergone testing in realistic scenarios – from launching and flight to engagement with a target. It has demonstrated its functionality, proving its ability to fulfill its mission. Essentially, whether that mission is to deliver a payload to a certain target, intercept incoming missiles, or carry out another task, it’s been verified.

Decoding everything

Indeed, a successful test was conducted in December — a yellow ring furnished with an active warhead, gracefully arced over the ocean to land precisely at a strategic airbase, ready to be affixed to a missile that faced potential cancellation. You might ask, does this present a conglomerate of strategic, fiscal, and political conundrums? Quite possibly, it does. 

From a strategically advantageous perspective, such a missile might have been constructed as a preventive measure or a display of technological supremacy, without a concrete plan for mass production. Furthermore, the presumptive enemy this weapon was designed to deter might no longer pose a threat or may have evolved, rendering the missile less relevant or even redundant. 

Considering the economic aspects, prohibitive manufacturing costs could be a deterrent. Successful testing does not guarantee economical mass production. The steep cost of producing such a missile in bulk might simply be impractical. Factors such as a limited defense budget, shifting allocation of funds, or alternate spending priorities could all contribute to the discontinuation of the project. 

Live 'yellow-ringed' warhead spotted on 'canceled' US missile
Photo credit: USAF

Delving into the political realm, changes in domestic policy or international regulations can inhibit the continued production of the missile. Arms reduction treaties can impose limitations on the type or quantity of arms a country is legally allowed to produce. Whether on a domestic or international front, political pressure could pose another stumbling block in proceeding with the project. 

Lastly, but definitely not least, advancements in technology could have a pivotal impact. The speed at which military technology evolves could introduce a more efficient alternative, rendering the missile redundant even before it enters the production stage.

What the experts say

Discussing the missile’s visibility requires careful tactical consideration, given China’s close proximity. A press release image features aircrews from the 23rd Expeditionary Bomb Squadron based in Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, and the 49th Test and Evaluation Squadron from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. They are attentively examining an AGM-183A AARW attached to an outer pylon of a B-52H bomber. 

Unknown problem: Lockheed's AGM-183A missile didn't launch again
Photo credit: Wikipedia

A conspicuous yellow band on the AGM-183A missile signifies the presence of a warhead. This, together with the recently released public notifications for pilots and seafarers in the area, strongly hints at a potential live-fire ARRW missile test happening soon. 

The AGM-183 ARRW, a boost-glide weapon, was developed by Lockheed Martin. Once the booster helps the warhead reach cruising speed, it separates and sets course for the target while evading any countermeasures. 

Although there has been no official dismissal of further tests following the cancellation announcement, the strategic live fire testing near China, combined with the wording of the statement, seems to suggest that the ARRW still possesses operational potential.

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