After hypersonic missiles, US Air Force sets eye on air-breathing hypersonic jet

Initial R&D is to be completed by 2028.
Ameya Paleja
Artist's rendition of air breathing scramjet engine
Artist's rendition of air breathing scramjet engine

Leidos 

After the recent success of its hypersonic missile, the U.S. Air Force has not set its eyes on developing an air-breathing hypersonic aircraft. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has awarded the contract for the development of the system to Reston, Virginia-based Leidos, a company release said.

The U.S. Air Force has a number of supersonic aircraft in its fleet. As the militaries of other nations are catching up rather quickly, the U.S. needs to push the envelope on the next generation of aircraft, capable of flying faster and carrying a payload that others cannot match.

To begin with, the AFRL is looking to develop an expendable hypersonic multi-mission ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) and Strike program, referred to as Mayhem. The first details about the project emerged only in 2020 and is linked to another program for developing advanced high-speed jet engines, The War Zone reported.

What is the Mayhem system?

The Mayhem system design consists of a scramjet engine that can propel a vehicle across long distances and at speeds greater than Mach 5 or five times the speed of sound. A scramjet (supersonic combustion ramjet) engine is an advancement of the ramjet where the fuel combustion takes place in supersonic airflow.

As the rendering in the press release shows, an aircraft powered by such a system is likely to have a single engine and a large air intake under the fuselage. The single-tail aircraft will likely have a long and slender shape and delta wings.

The AFRL is looking at the system to carry five times as much payload than the current systems and has twice as much rangeç

The Role of Leidos

Although the U.S. Department of Defense's contracting announcement said that Leidos was picked after considering six offers, it did not state who were the other offers from. Leidos has been awarded a $334 million contract for the research and development of the Mayhem program.

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The announcement goes on to state that the project will focus on delivering a larger-class air-breathing hypersonic system that can execute multiple missions. As noted earlier, the system will have both, strike as well as ISR missions.

In its press release, Leidos added that it plans to use digital engineering in its design efforts and development of the system. To this effect, it has received $24 million to conduct the System Requirements Review (SRR) and Conceptual Design Review (CoDR).

The company has also assembled a team of experts from academia and industry to serve as the System Design Agent (SDA) which will look to oversee the advanced research and development needed to prepare production-ready technical data to produce prototypes.

The company will also lead the Model-Based Systems Engineering (MBSE) and programming that will the Mayhem system transition from an idea to an operational system, the press release said.

Work for the project will be carried out at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and is expected to be completed by October 2028.