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By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization

(Washington D.C.) The Air Force Research Laboratory is in the early stages of developing a breakthrough-level hypersonic drone, something it appears the world has not yet seen. Hypersonic missiles are certainly here and already firing, and there has been a long-standing, multi-year scientific effort to evolve hypersonic technologies into new dimensions of possibility.

Hypersonic Drone

The weapon, called Mayhem, is an air-breathing hypersonic weapon system, is largely in the conceptual stages, however officials with the AFRL say some initial subsystem hardware work is underway. The AFRL is very clear that most details, if even conceptual, are not discussable for understandable security reasons, they do say the platform will be a “Multi-mission ISR/Strike” vehicle which will travel at hypersonic speeds above Mach 5. In a simple tactical sense, this mission scope means the hypersonic vehicle will travel with some kind of sensor payload able to gather information and targeting detail and also, it appears, be capable of launching offensive strikes. 

The full name of the program is referred to as Expendable Hypersonic Multi-Mission ISR and Strike Program, and the effort is now moving into a System Requirements Review and Conceptual Design Review in a digital engineering kind of environment.

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Leidos and Kratos have been given an AFRL deal to perform advanced work on a System Design Agent team to gather promising industry innovations of relevance to the project and ultimately oversee designs, prototypes and testing.

This breakthrough, should it come to fruition in coming years, is extremely significant for a number of reasons and could very well give the US a tactical and strategic advantage, given the speeds at which it could conduct surveillance and attack operations. The Air Force has already fired its Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) from a B-52, demonstrating an ability to use scramjet propulsion technology to launch and sustain hypersonic speeds with an attack weapon at five times the speed of sound. This weapon, and others across the US military services, are evolving quickly and showing great promise as paradigm-changing weapons for future attack.

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Hypersonic weapons and hypersonic flight have long been on the radar for the Air Force, DARPA and AFRL as there have been a series of experiments in recent years with mixed results at times. The challenge, scientists familiar with hypersonic flight explain, is not so much having an ability to achieve or reach hypersonic speeds but rather “sustain” those speeds over longer distances. Thermal management must be extremely well developed to ensure materials can maintain flight trajectory through the kinds of unprecedented temperatures generated by hypersonic flight. This requires the use of special heat-resistant composites or other materials capable of maintaining course at hypersonic speeds. 

Air flow management, described by AFRL scientists and weapons developers as “boundary layer phenomenology,” is also critical to successful hypersonic flight. This means the contours and shapes of the hypersonic vehicle itself needs to be engineered in alignment with key aerodynamic variables to ensure the surrounding air flow is smooth, or “laminar” and does not dislodge or throw an hypersonic projectile off course. A turbulent air flow surrounding the projectile, by contrast, can cause materials to change position and disrupt the flight stability of a hypersonic projectile, therefore the weapons themselves need to be built with advanced aerodynamics to ensure operational effectiveness.

A hypersonic drone such as Mayhem, however, would represent yet another paradigm-changing scientific breakthrough, as the vehicle itself would need to travel with some kind of an integrated sensor payload and weapon at hypersonic speeds. This of course presents a new level of challenges as a platform such as this would of course be larger and potentially more difficult to stabilize in flight in terms of both thermal management and boundary layer or air flow. Certainly the innovations responsible for generating this kind of breakthrough are not likely to be available, as naturally the AFRL and Pentagon would want to preserve any technological advantage it may be developing.

Interestingly, this development aligns with projections made years ago by former Air Force Chief Scientist Dr. Gregory Zacharias. In a discussion with Warrior more than 7 years ago, Zacharias explained the maturation of hypersonic technology in terms of a “stairstep” development, meaning it would start with hypersonic weapons in the early 2020s and then evolve into hypersonic drone technology by 2030 before at some point reaching a seemingly unthinkable ability to launch and “recover” a hypersonic drone.

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All of this points to the cutting edge question of just how the Mayhem might inform or impact combat tactics, as it will certainly introduce new levels of speed and range to surveillance and attack missions. For instance, should a satellite identify an active moving target at great distances which cannot be targeted from long-range stand-off weapons, then some kind of air platform, vehicle or drone would need to travel close enough to attack. Should the target be small, moving and perhaps beyond the range of available weapons, the attack weapon would need to travel at maximum speeds to strike while a target is available. 

An armed hypersonic drone, therefore, might be well positioned to find and actually “hit” targets which might otherwise disappear from view before being attacked. In high-speed warfare, targets can emerge and disappear in a matter of seconds, creating the need for an ultra-fast decision-cycle and attack window. Clearly a drone able to travel at five-times the speed of sound would greatly impact, if not fully reshape this kind of tactical situation. 

Kris Osborn is the President of the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.