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US Air Force signs $344m deal for hypersonic Mayhem aircraft

Part missile, part spy plane, all Mach 5+ and coming in 2028, maybe

The US Air Force has awarded $334 million to defense contractor Leidos to develop the next phase in its hypersonic arsenal: An unmanned craft meant for super-speed spying dubbed "Mayhem." 

This latest contract award comes less than a week after the USAF announced the successful test of its first service-ready hypersonic weapon (defined as able to travel faster than Mach 5 while maintaining maneuverability), the Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW.

Unlike ARRW, Leidos' Mayhem award isn't just about building a weapon - it's for "Expendable Hypersonic Multi-mission ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) and Strike program, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike craft." A warhead will fit, but this is more like a photon torpedo/probe/space coffin from Star Trek: customizable to meet the needs of the mission.

"This program is focused on delivering a larger class air-breathing hypersonic system capable of executing multiple missions with a standardized payload interface, providing a significant technological advancement and future capability," the Department of Defense said last week. 

The air-breathing design of Mayhem is also different from ARRW, which uses a missile and glider system to reach targets. No hypersonic Mayhem strike craft are being built yet, though - Leidos said its initial task award of $24 million is for system requirement and conceptual design reviews in a digital environment - quite preliminary.

The award is capped at $334m, but is otherwise an "indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract with cost-plus-fixed-fee … for research and development" as part of Mayhem. In other words, the bill is only getting larger.

The USAF's Mayhem project has been public knowledge since 2020, but little is known of the classified program's actual purpose. It was believed Mayhem involved the development of a new hypersonic attack aircraft until the actual contract opportunity was published, revealing it to be the aforementioned multi-mission ISR and strike craft.

As a jet engine platform, Mayhem more closely resembles DARPA's Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) than the USAF's ARRW missile. DARPA successfully tested HAWC missiles earlier this year and believes they are also ready for real-world use. 

Hypersonic weapons aren't limited to only traveling at Mach 5. One hypersonic design tested by Lockheed Martin in the 2010s proved capable of speeds up to Mach 20, which could allow it to traverse the continental United States in less than 12 minutes. Mayhem is only described as being able to travel "long distances at speeds greater than Mach 5," though it'll likely be quite a bit faster as well.

The US Government's stated goal is to develop hypersonic weapons able to strike anywhere in the world within an hour.

Speed aside, Mayhem isn't going to be much more than a twinkle in a defense contractor's eye for several years - the DoD said it doesn't expect work on the project at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to be completed until October 2028 - if everything goes to plan. ®

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