The much-discussed but much unknown Mach 6 SR-72 Son of Blackbird will be, by all accounts, an amazing airplane if it succeeds in development. At that speed, it could likely get anywhere in the world in literally no time at all. The potentially unmanned hypersonic aircraft adds a new dimension to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. There are currently strategic recon drones in service such as the Global Hawk, but this unmanned system only goes a top speed of 391 miles per hour. It would be easy to shoot it down. An SR-72, would not, and explains to a great extent the appeal of such an aircraft and all of the rumors and interest.
Why SR-72? The Speed
Alternatively, the Son of Blackbird, at Mach 6, could outfly existing fighter planes and air defenses. The next-generation spy plane is only a technology demonstrator at this point. Lockheed Martin Skunk Works is keeping many details of the spy drone under wraps, but the demonstrator could take a maiden flight in 2023, maybe even as late as 2025. If all goes well it would enter into service in 2030.
SR-72 Can It Work?
Some skeptics are not even sure the Son of Blackbird will ever become a reality.
The specs are ambitious. Such a hypersonic speed will be a technological hurdle. Landing and takeoff would be a challenge. The SR-72 may have to be launched with another airplane. It could be an armed recon bird making development even more complicated. Some reporting even claims the aircraft is supposed to have a high-speed strike weapon that is likely a tactical boost-glide hypersonic cruise missile.
SR-72 Mach 6: There’s a Long Development Path
Many technology integration milestones will have to be met if the demonstrator flies in two to four years.
For one, the advanced scramjet engine is a hurdle. Therefore, due to these requirements, the entire SR-72 program would need funding for at least 10 years, perhaps even 15 years. What if air defenses improve by then? Many defense technology evolutions could take place in the coming years eliminating the advantages of the Son of Blackbird.
Lockheed Martin has not discussed the cost of the SR-72, although the defense contractor has mentioned a precursor drone that could have a price tag of $1 billion. This would then lead to the production of the SR-72. So, the Son of Blackbird could be built in phases with improved prototypes as the technology matures. Maybe even 3D-printed parts would be required. Radar-evading characteristics are not clear.
What about stealth? Could the SR-72 be stealthy? The heat generated by the hypersonic speeds would allow enemy sensors to see it. At that temperature, radar-absorbing materials would be burned off.
Will Congress Buy In?
Hypersonics are currently a hot category and a priority for Congress and the Department of Defense considering China’s recent FOAB test. That likely means if a project has the word hypersonic attached to it, the U.S. government will likely throw money at the SR-72. Skunk Works had much success with the original SR-71, it created a prototype in under two years. So, the Son of Blackbird could get approved and come to fruition. It would be an outstanding technological marvel. The Son of Blackbird could make its father, the SR-71, a proud papa.
1945’s new Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated since posting.