An artist's rendition of Mayhem, a planned air-breathing hypersonic modular weapon the USAF hopes to add to its arsenal. Photo: USAF

It’s called “Mayhem” – and it intends to do just that on the battlefield.

An air-breathing hypersonic weapon capable of carrying multiple payloads, perform surveillance and reconnaissance and other intelligence functions, all in one nice modular package, Air Force Magazine reported – larger than the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW).

The US Air Force has solicited concepts for a new hypersonic system exclusively from three contractors, namely Boeing, Lockheed Martin’s Skunkworks, and Raytheon, with contracts to be awarded in fiscal 2021, Air Force magazine reported.

The USAF hopes get to preliminary design review within 15 months.

“Mayhem, in its early planning stages, was described as a ‘Multi-Mission Cruiser” due to the focus on sustained hypersonic flight capabilities independent of potential payloads,” the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) told Aviation Week.  

Budget documents say that the Multi-Mission Cruiser effort would involve a “multi-cycle” engine of some kind, though this could refer to a turbine-based combined cycle (TBCC) arrangement or a dual-mode scramjet.

Mayhem is “focused on demonstrating advanced scramjet propulsion technologies,” was all AFRL would tell Aviation Week.

Scramjets, as well as ramjets, generally only function properly at high speeds, requiring some kind of separate booster, typically a rocket motor, to accelerate the aircraft or missile to the appropriate velocity first, The War Zone reported.

A dual-mode scramjet is one that is capable of operating efficiently in both subsonic and supersonic regimes, or even hypersonic ones. Hypersonic speeds is generally defined as Mach 5 or above.

The technology will build on efforts in the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, or HAWC, a joint program with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), as well as the High-Speed Strike Weapon (HSSW) program.

USAF acquisition executive Will Roper said the new missile would be pursued with rapid prototyping, as the ARRW and Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW) were, Air Force Magazine reported.

The air force dropped HCSW from its hypersonic plans in January, opting to devote its efforts to ARRW.

Roper said at the time that he was impressed with the level of maturity of scramjet designs and he had previously expected them to come later than boost-glide, Air Force magazine reported.

“I’m delighted to say that I was wrong,” Roper said. “Scramjet is much more mature and ready to go than I originally thought.”

The Air Force is already performing advanced ramjet and scramjet work, previously revealing that it achieved what it said was record-breaking performance from a scramjet during ground tests last year, The War Zone reported.

Earlier this month, the service handed what was effectively a US$1.5 million research and development grant to the Hermeus Corporation, which has been actively testing its own proprietary combined cycle jet engine design.

— with files from Air Force magazine, The National Interest and Aviation Week