Development of the bomber, which will travel at Mach 10, just took a huge step forward.
Project Mayhem, the Air Force’s secret hypersonic bomber, would be an air-breathing Mach 10 replacement for the SR-71.
The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory recently awarded a $334 million contract to several engineering companies, including Draper, to oversee the designs, prototypes and tests of Project Mayhem.
At hypersonic speeds, heat makes building and testing hypersonic planes tricky business.
The engineering of next-gen weapons and defense systems is a science built around speed. In 2018, Russia made headlines when President Vladimir Putin revealed the country’s hypersonic missile system, the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal, in a sizzle reel video showing the missile blowing up Florida, of all places. Although the video wasn’t quite as sleek as a new iPhone reveal, the message was apocalyptically clear: the era of hypersonic weapons was here.
What makes these weapons so deadly is that they’re designed to outrun modern air defense systems, and this hypersonic threat has only grown in the five years since Kinzhal’s debut. When it comes to the hypersonic missiles arms race, it seems like the U.S. might be slipping behind Russia or even China.
But that might be because the U.S. military has its sights set on a bigger prize: a hypersonic bomber.
Meet the Air Force’s secret hypersonic bomber: the Expendable Hypersonic Multi-mission ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and Strike program, a.k.a. Project Mayhem.
The mighty bomber would have a few advantages over its missile-based adversaries, but the big one would be usability. Where missiles like the Kinzhal, Zircon, and China’s Dongfeng-17 are expensive (around $100 million) one-shots, a hypersonic plane traveling in excess of Mach 5—Project Mayhem would reportedly travel Mach 10—could be refueled and used again, and again, and again.
The idea of a hypersonic plane dates back to the Space Race, culminating in the North American X-15A-2 record-breaking Mach 6.7 flight in 1967. Further aerospace advancements created mechanical wonders like the supersonic SR-71. Project Mayhem would likely use a multi-cycle propulsion system, employing a jet engine to reach Mach 3 before transitioning to an air-breathing scramjet for hypersonic speeds. But designing a reusable plane at such speeds comes with serious limitations.
At Mach 5 and beyond, things heat up pretty fast thanks to friction and air resistance, so any plane hoping to go that fast and survive the experience would need to be cloaked in advanced materials that haven’t even been invented yet. None of this even touches on the fact that maneuverability at such speeds will also be a gargantuan engineering undertaking, and that combining a traditional jet engine with a scramjet has never been successfully accomplished.
Because of this unique operating environment and the necessity of precision-sensitive design, Project Mayhem is turning to model-based engineering (MBE) to digitally construct every system on the hypothetical plane.
“A key element of developing hypersonics is implementation of MBE as a cost-effective way to evaluate design concepts before proceeding to build a prototype,” Frank Serna, principal director of Air Force Strategic Systems at Draper, said in a statement this week. Draper, which helped design the guidance systems on the Apollo spacecraft, has worked on hypersonic systems for decades.
On Wednesday, Draper announced its partnership with engineering company Leidos, which was awarded a $334 million Air Force contract in December to begin work on digitally creating the Air Force’s secret hypersonic bomber. Project Mayhem will likely involve meticulously simulating hypersonic flight’s punishing conditions of heat and speed known as hypersonic flight.
The dream of a hypersonic plane in the Air Force’s arsenal is one that stretches back decades, and now it seems that engineers and scientists are hard at work making that dream a reality.