New Details of America’s Hypersonic Space Bomber Emerge: Breaking China’s Monopoly on Mach 5+ Aircraft

New details regarding the U.S. Air Force program to develop a hypersonic intercontinental range space aircraft have emerged, with the service seeking a modular experimental design configurable for both strike and reconnaissance missions. Named the Mayhem Program, the aircraft will complement efforts to develop a next-generation stealth bomber and more advanced surveillance satellites by providing new ways to launch nuclear strikes and conduct reconnaissance. The development of an aircraft which served in both roles is hardly unprecedented, the most notable proceeding example being the Soviet MiG-25 Foxbat, the fastest combat jet ever to enter service, which served as a strike bomber, reconnaissance aircraft, as well as a high altitude interceptor and as the MiG-25BM varian an air defence suppression aircraft. The predecessor of the current U.S. program, the SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance jet, was also developed into an interceptor although this was cancelled for cost reasons. Hypersonic aircraft flying in space may well pose an even greater challenge to enemy air defences than new stealth bombers, with Russia investing heavily in developing countermeasures most notably the S-500 air defence system and the PAK DP interceptor program which are both intended to neutralise hypersonic space planes.

China unveiled the worlds first operational hypersonic aircraft in 2019 with the WZ-8, which is thought to be able to fly at around Mach 7. The American aircraft is expected to be considerably larger and longer ranged, as unlike the WZ-8 which is intended to operate defensively the American jet will likely be required to fly from bases on U.S. territory across oceans to reach adversaries such as China, North Korea and Russia. The contract requirements for the new aircraft were released as follows: "The Mayhem Program is focused on delivering a larger class air-breathing hypersonic system capable of executing multiple missions with a standardised payload interface, providing a significant technological advancement and future capability. The system goal is to carry payloads five-times the mass and double the range of current technology capability systems. The standardised payload interface would create multiple opportunities for various payload integration within the same hypersonic system." Developing an engine capable of propelling aircraft to and operating at such speeds remains a major challenge for American industry which no country other than China has yet operationalised. Use of scramjet and ramjet engines has been highlighted as a possibility but remains challenging as these cannot operate effectively at lower speeds. The possibility of pairing them on the aircraft with a traditional jet turbine engine has thus increasingly been highlighted as a solution. 

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