Mayhem spy plane will fly at hypersonic speeds

Mayhem is an odd name for a spy, but a pretty good one for a super-fast jet. On December 16, the Department of Defense awarded contractor Leidos $334 million to develop a hypersonic flying tracker. The bounty is technically for the “Expendable Hypersonic Multitasking ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and Strike program”, but is also known as Mayhem. It will be without a crew – a drone.

“The Mayhem system will use a scramjet engine to generate thrust and propel the vehicle over long distances at speeds greater than Mach 5,” Leidos said in a statement.

Hypersonic is the threshold defined as five or more times the speed of sound. Most recent developments in hypersonic technology have focused on weapons such as fast-flying missiles to evade detection and interference. Speed ​​is extremely useful for a weapon, as the power of a quick impact can be extremely deadly even without a warhead on board.

What sets Mayhem apart from more directly destructive designs is that, while still intended to be expendable, the hypersonic Mayhem is a tool for exploration rather than flying around.

ISR, which stands for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and is usually short for anything related to the Pentagon’s exploration, surveillance, and monitoring activity below, is a mission often associated with slow-moving vehicles. Drones such as the mid-altitude Reaper or the ultra-long-lived Global Hawk were built to monitor the activity below, providing insight into how the soldiers, sailors and pilots below responded. Still, some missions can’t be done at the heavy speeds of the Reaper’s propeller engine or expect an overhead satellite to be in place.

In this vacuum where the need is urgent and information gathering is dangerous, Mayhem will probably work best.

past prologue

One way to understand the role mayhem might have is to look at the history of superfast drones. The most famous of these is the SR-71 Blackbirds and its one-man, CIA-piloted predecessor, the A-12, also known as the Oxcart. Both aircraft are designed to take pictures without being hit by air defense missiles, which had improved significantly in power and accuracy during the Cold War. The Soviet Union used a surface-to-air missile to shoot down a U-2 spy plane in 1960, and while U-2s still fly today, there are some missions that are better suited for a faster vehicle. Oxcart flew missions over North Vietnam for the United States in 1967 and 1968 before retiring. The two-seater Blackbird, with space for a pilot and one person to team the sensors, was put into operation in the 1990s.

“With its tremendous speed and high altitude, the SR-71 is designed to fly deep into enemy territory and avoid interception. It can safely operate at a maximum speed of Mach 3.3 at an altitude of more than sixteen miles above the ground, or 25,908 m (85,000 ft),” says the National Air and Space Museum.

The Blackbird entered service in the late 1960s and was retired in 1998. In April 1988, ten years before Blackbird’s retirement, Popular Science highlighted what the Air Force would want in a tow, including a Mach 5 speed and service ceiling. Over 100,000 feet.

Mayhem has a third distant predecessor: the D-21 supersonic drone. Four D-21s launched by aircraft, including the B-52, were used to take pictures of China between 1969 and 1971. recovered before processing in a dark room. The D-21 flew on a steady path and then exploded after its mission. None of the four flights over China produced recoverable images and the program was cancelled.

Developing a new hypersonic spyplane has long been a goal of the Air Force, with reports periodically emerging of new concepts.

The good news without a crew

What could make Mayhem a better bet than any previous attempt to replace the Blackbird in 2022 could be a number of factors, all of which have led to advanced drone technology. Eliminating the need for a pilot on an airplane can shrink its overall profile, allowing the airplane to operate without the need to keep the people on board alive.

Cameras, data processing and wireless data transmission have evolved tremendously in recent years. The era of using film cameras for aerial surveillance finally ended this summer, and with it the restrictions on having to collect or process film negatives. Cameras that enable drone sensors, such as the far-seeing pods at Global Hawks, show an industrial community proficient in far-seeing sensors, although taking clear and fast photos has its own hurdles. The Blackbird included sensors to listen for and record signals such as radar and radios, which could also be incorporated into a hypersonic drone.

Like the D-21 before it, Mayhem is expendable, where the loss of the drone does not mean the loss of the information it collects. But expendable doesn’t mean the drone is destroyed at the end of every mission, and a salvaged and reusable drone would be a boon to military officials looking for a way to photo-verify reports.

“This program is focused on providing a larger class air-breathing hypersonic system capable of multitasking with a standardized payload interface, providing significant technological advancement and future capability” are all details provided in the contract announcement on what Mayhem will actually do. to do.

However turmoil ultimately unfolds, it will fill a void the Air Force has left open for almost three decades.

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