Hypersonic chaos! The United States approves another air-breathing missile program days after tasting success with ARRW

A few days after the United States successfully tested a prototype hypersonic air-to-ground missile, another hypersonic project codenamed “Chaos” took off, which was kept shrouded in secrecy.

The Pentagon announced December 16 that the United States Air Force (USAF) had awarded a $334 million contract for Project Mayhem to Leidos to develop a platform for hypersonic weapons and sensors. Leidos was selected nine months after the Air Force Research Laboratory officially issued his application.

Project Mayhem aims to create a hypersonic air-breathing system with a greater payload capacity than the AGM-183A air-launched rapid response weapon (ARRW), along with the ability to conduct strike, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (IRS) missions.

For perspective, the AGM-183A ARRW is a long-range hypersonic missile developed for the US Air Force. The weapon will enhance the USAF’s air strike capability at standoff ranges, allowing it to attack highly defended targets. It is expected to be officially published by 2023.

Although very little information has been revealed about the program, we do know that it intends to build the Ultrasonic Air Ventilation Weapon Concept (HAWC), among other things, for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Leidos will use digital and model-based systems engineering, according to the press release, building on an Air Force strategy that increasingly prioritizes digital engineering weapon development as a way to accelerate development and improve design accuracy.

According to a Leidos press release, a $24 million contract has been awarded for the first phase of Project Mayhem, which included a review of system requirements and conceptual design. The initial work will be funded by approximately $8.7 million from the 2022 budget for research and development, testing and evaluation.

What do we know about Project Mayhem?

According to a recently published contract award release, Mayhem is focused on “delivering a larger-class, air-breathing hypersonic system capable of completing a multitude of missions with a unified payload interface, enabling significant technology advances and future capabilities.

A unified protocol-based electronic interface allows data exchange between the weapon system and the aircraft weapon system management and control computer. The plane can carry different types of weapons. A modular interface would allow aircraft sensors to map navigation and targeting data to the weapon system prior to launch.

In the rendering released by Leidos, which can be seen below, a hypersonic unmanned aerial vehicle can be seen with one engine and a large air inlet under the fuselage. It has an overall fuselage design that is relatively long and narrow, has delta-shaped wings, and a single vertical tail. However, this is just an impression and may be far from the actual design.

Artist rendering of the Chaos-Leidos aerial vehicle

In December of last year, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) published a contract document online that noted: “The potential for viable multi-cycle designs is extremely important for both weapons and aircraft concepts, and unlike current hypersonic projects — It could produce a ship that is able to fly at supersonic speeds and can then land, making it reusable.”

The document explains the concept without revealing specific details, and added: “While this development will be most important for hypersonic aircraft, it will also have a benefit for hypersonic missiles – providing them with the ability to adapt between speeds depending on mission requirements.”

The document further stated that the aim of the system is to deliver payloads five times the mass and double the range of systems capable of current technology. The standard payload interface will allow different payloads to be combined into a single hypersonic system in several ways.

It also mentioned three desired payloads for the Mayhem vehicle, only one of which will be flown at a time. The three loads were attached to the strike mission and one for the “responder” ISR. The only descriptions of the strike loads were “area effect” and “large unitary”.

At the time, defense writer Joseph Trevithick broke it down and said the desire for separate “area effect” and “large unilateral” payloads strongly suggests the former envision a cluster munition payload or something similar, like a swarm of small drones.

Although it would have a standardized design, an advanced high explosive warhead could produce a “zone effect”. The expert noted that “large unitary” could also refer to larger warheads with multiple effects against a single target, such as deep penetration capabilities against bunkers and other fortified structures.

SR - 72
Artist’s rendering of Lockheed Martin’s SR-72

The service has previously compared the Mayhem attempt to a hybrid between an air-breathing hypersonic weapon and a full-fledged hypersonic aircraft. It was earlier believed that Mayhem was “focused, at least in part, on acquiring testbeds to support work on advanced high-speed jet engines such as those being developed for proposed hypersonic aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin SR-72.”

Given the secrecy of the program, there is speculation that the first version of the Mayhem experimental vehicle may serve as a test bed for a more durable hypersonic aircraft with an advanced multi-mode propulsion system.

The Mayhem program is expected to significantly enhance the United States’ hypersonic capabilities over the long term. The United States has fallen behind Russia and China on hypersonic weapons but is quickly catching up. All three of its devices are preparing to deploy their hypersonic weapons.

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