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Lockheed Martin’s SR-72 Mach 6 Darkstar: What We Know

SR-72
SR-72, maybe. Screenshot from Top Gun 2 Trailer.

It was over twenty years ago the Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird” was retired by the United States Air Force, and while surveillance satellites can provide that eye in the sky for intelligence gathering there is still a need for such high flying, ultra-fast aircraft.

Such a platform would complement other manned aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), providing flexibility in how intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) is gathered.

Back in 2013, Lockheed Martin proposed a follow-up to the SR-71. Fittingly, it was the SR-72, which has also become known as the “Son of the Blackbird,” and it was suggested that the vehicle could fly by 2023 – that is unless it has already taken flight.

According to a report from The EurAsian Times, Hollywood superstar Tom Cruise may have become the first person to fly the next-generation hypersonic SR-72 “Darkstar” – even if it was only in the upcoming film Top Gun: Maverick. In the trailer for the film, the sequel to the original 1986 Top Gun, Cruise’s character Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell can be seen in a mystery aircraft that eagle-eyed viewers believe could be the SR-72 (you can see what could be the new plane at 2:11 below).

With the movie delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is still not clear if it was the advanced aircraft in the film or a fictionalized variant.

Yet, a very real version of the Darkstar has been designed and developed at Lockheed Martin’s not-so-secret Advanced Development Programs office or “Skunk Works,” the same one that was responsible for the development of the SR-71 Blackbird in the 1960s. That original aircraft was noted for flying faster and higher than any other plane in the world – and it set numerous records during its twenty-four years in service.

However, the Son of the Blackbird could leave its predecessor in the dust.

What We Might Know, Maybe

The SR-72 reportedly features a propulsion system that is centered on a turbine-based combined cycle, which merges a modified production fighter turbine engine with a dual-mode ramjet – also called a scramjet. This enables the aircraft to accelerate from a standing start to Mach 6. That could allow the SR-72 Darkstar to reach any destination in an incredibly short amount of time. Moreover, the platform would be capable of carrying weapons that could target remote parts of the world from the very edge of space.

What else is known to date about the SR-72 is that it is a hypersonic aircraft demonstrator – which may or may not lead to a full production vehicle. It was also developed as an optionally piloted flight research vehicle (FRV), and would have the capability to conduct ISR as well as strike operations.

The first flight of the demonstrator isn’t expected until 2023, while a production version won’t likely enter service until at least the 2030s according to Air Force Technology. However, developing a super-fast aircraft could be something that could take a bit of time to perfect.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

Editor’s Note: We have updated this piece for greater clarity since publication. 

Peter Suciu
Written By

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Jack

    January 11, 2021 at 8:58 pm

    Skunk Works not “Shunk Works”

    So we are to believe the country had nothing to fill the SR-71 shoes when they retired it….I doubt it.

  2. Avatar

    Forrest Higgs

    January 12, 2021 at 9:27 am

    “Shunk Works”? That is the most obvious editing problem in this otherwise interesting piece. An editing, however perfunctory would have helped the credibility of this piece enormousl. 🙁

    • Avatar

      Matthew Schilling

      January 13, 2021 at 7:31 pm

      Irony aler

    • Avatar

      Comenius

      January 13, 2021 at 11:25 pm

      You said, “enormousl”
      You could have done a little editing yourself.

  3. Avatar

    Dan

    January 12, 2021 at 12:30 pm

    “Yet, a very real version of the Darkstar has been designed and developed at Lockheed Martin’s not-so-secret Advanced Development Programs office or “Skunk Works,” the same one that was responsible for the development of the SR-72 Blackbird in the 1960s.”

    The SR-71 was developed in the 1960s, not the R-72. Lots of copy-edit issues here. You qualify for a job on either the F-53 project or the USS Ford.

    • Avatar

      Dan

      January 12, 2021 at 12:31 pm

      F-35. My own copy-edit issue.

  4. Avatar

    Dean A Markley

    January 12, 2021 at 2:09 pm

    Mach 6 is about 4600 mph. The longest distance to go anywhere in the world is about 12,500 miles. So, the SR-72 is not going to get there in an hour.

    • Avatar

      Steven Naslund

      January 13, 2021 at 5:23 pm

      Mach number changes with altitude so its difficult to compute ground speed without altitude data although one would assume it pretty high altitudes to reach that speed. If you also factor in remote bases like the SR71 operating from England and Japan, global one hour reach could be a reality. I would assume a pretty high fuel consumption so forward basing is almost mandatory to avoid a huge tanker train.

  5. Avatar

    Ian

    January 12, 2021 at 7:08 pm

    frivolous point maybe but as to the trailer for top gun, why would tom cruise who now appears to be a navy flight instructor be flying a ” possible ” air force high altitude high speed surveillance plane of what would be at the highest level of classified status ???

    • Avatar

      Ed

      January 13, 2021 at 11:36 am

      Killjoy.

    • Avatar

      DevilDogDing

      January 14, 2021 at 5:42 am

      Because it’s not a documentary?

    • Avatar

      JAFO

      January 14, 2021 at 7:17 am

      It’s a frickin Movie! Excellent post, “Frivolous point”.

  6. Avatar

    Jerome Barry

    January 12, 2021 at 10:18 pm

    It’s a trailer. I figure the unseen feature of the film is that China is the heroic entity. I’m simply not interested in paying the price to be snookered.

    • Avatar

      armybill

      January 14, 2021 at 6:12 am

      China already bankrolled part of the film, and even mandated that the Taiwan flag be removed from the movie. Can’t let people think that Taiwan is independent… as China is literally moving it’s marine forces off the island of Taiwan and making bold statements about invasion to assert that Taiwan is owned and operated by China, much like they just did with Hong Kong.

  7. Avatar

    Thomas J. Waeghe

    January 13, 2021 at 8:54 am

    China prolly already has it.

    • Avatar

      Jack Kennedy

      January 16, 2021 at 11:34 am

      China prob has the sr 72 along with Hong Kong …. if not, chinajoe will get it to them post haste

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