The fabled SR-71 Blackbird high-speed reconnaissance plane has been officially out of service since 1990, even though it might still be the fastest airplane in the sky—fast enough to outrun a North Korean missile in 1981.
Judging by recent comments from a Lockheed Martin executive, the Blackbird’s long-rumored, even faster successor might be closer to going operational than anyone thought.
The Blackbird was retired in part due to advances in satellite coverage, and later the rise of drone aircraft for short-range reconnaissance, and partly because it was unbelievably expensive to operate. A plane that can do Mach 3.2 at an altitude of 85,000 feet requires all sorts of specialized maintenance and a unique mixture of fuel. There were only a few Blackbirds in service at any given time, so there were no economies of scale to defray the costs. Some estimates put the operational cost at $200,000 per hour, plus even more for logistics.
The Air Force also grew concerned that advanced Russian air defenses, which would eventually propagate to Russia’s client states, had become capable of doing what North Korea could not manage in 1981 and actually shooting down a Blackbird. The cost/benefit analysis just did not work any longer for one of the most amazing aircraft in aviation history.
Elapsed time from the first Wright Brothers flight at Kitty Hawk to the first supersonic SR-71 flight is 61 years.
Plans for a successor to the SR-71 have been moving quietly along for some time, with a target date of 2030 for the first flight, but Bloomberg Technology found great significance in Lockheed Vice President Jack O’Banion talking about the plane as if some sort of prototype already exists.
“Without the digital transformation, the aircraft you see there could not have been made. In fact, five years ago, it could not have been made,” O’Banion said at an aerospace conference last week, indicating an artist’s rendering of the sleek new SR-72.
“We couldn’t have made the engine itself—it would have melted down into slag if we had tried to produce it five years ago,” he continued. “But now we can digitally print that engine with an incredibly sophisticated cooling system integral into the material of the engine itself and have that engine survive for multiple firings for routine operation.”
O’Banion went on to stress that, in a variety of ways, construction of the “Son of Blackbird” would have been physically impossible even five years ago. His choice of verbs led excited aviation buffs to wonder if the planes, or at least some of its vital components, have indeed been built.
Those enthusiasts might be reading too much into the way O’Banion talked. Lockheed’s “Skunk Works” development team would not confirm any details, and neither would the U.S. Air Force. It would be safer to say the amazing design tools and manufacturing processes needed to create the SR-72 do exist, and they are amazing indeed.
The computer modeling system employed by Lockheed is so advanced that O’Banion was comfortable comparing it to Tony Stark’s design suite in the Iron Man movies, and the basic technology for a reliable aircraft that can fly at hypersonic speed above Mach 6 has been developed.
Bloomberg Technology explains that one of the big tech hurdles has been the development of a scramjet engine, which can maintain combustion at very high altitudes and very fast speeds. Thin, fast-moving air generally calls for increasingly large engines, which increases the weight and profile of the plane, soon reaching a point of diminishing returns that has capped maximum speeds until now. A scramjet—or, more precisely, a dual scramjet/turbine system—would combine rocket speeds with the maneuverability and flexibility of a jet airplane. Rockets have many uses, but they’re not very good at landing.
Both Lockheed and the Pentagon, as well as Lockheed’s rival Boeing, have reportedly expressed more interest in the next-generation Blackbird than one might expect for such a long-inert program, when satellite surveillance has become so advanced. Bloomberg Technology alludes to one possible reason: the SR-72 could be armed, possibly with scramjet cruise missiles that fly as fast as it does, becoming an almost unstoppable precision-strike platform moving at close to four thousand miles an hour. Its bombing raids would be over before the enemy even knew the plane was in their airspace.
Russia’s Sputnik News, which is also excited at the prospect of American hypersonic technology arriving ahead of schedule but probably not as happy about it, quotes a Lockheed manager suggesting that a Mach 6 jet armed with hypersonic missiles “could penetrate denied airspace and strike at nearly any location across a continent in less than an hour.”
Even if the SR-72 is not armed, there could still be a role for a Mach 6 surveillance platform that can take off and land at various locations, providing coverage where satellites are not able to get the job done, or maybe even when satellites have been destroyed. Research into anti-satellite weapons has been conducted by America’s potential adversaries, particularly China. A U.S. Air Force general estimated in 2015 that “soon every satellite in every orbit will be able to be held at risk” by Chinese ASAT weapons. The SR-72 would be harder to kill than a satellite and could pick up coverage in theaters where satellite surveillance has been compromised.
Sputnik found Lockheed executives declaring that “the United States is on the verge of a hypersonics revolution” and slyly suggesting that this time they really are two years away from developing the technology, as they’ve been boasting since the last few non-military Blackbird flights.
Some military analysts fear that Russia and China are working on hypersonic technology as well, and might be uncomfortably close to fielding their own prototypes. Somewhere in the fast-moving clouds of aviation enthusiasm, corporate public relations, military secrecy, and diplomatic messaging—Hey, North Korea! If B-1B Lancers scare you, just wait until you see what’s coming next!—an aircraft like nothing ever seen before is taking shape, and it could change strategic planning forever.