The SR-72 is the potential answer to a current capability gap in the U.S. Air Force. Envisioned as a hypersonic, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, the SR-72 promises to do a lot. What Lockheed Martin’s futuristic aircraft will deliver and if the Pentagon will buy it remain to be seen.
SR-72: An Ambitious Aircraft
Developed by Lockheed Martin’s famous Advanced Development Programs, also known as “Skunk Works,” the SR-72 is a hypersonic demonstrator aircraft that will first fly sometime in the mid-2020s. Reportedly designed as an optionally manned aircraft, meaning that it can have a human pilot on board, but it is not required to fly, the SR-72 promises to revolutionize aviation.
Reports indicate that the SR-72 might have a speed of Mach 6. No other aircraft in aviation history—spaceships not included—has even approached such speeds. Mach 6 translates into more than 4,100 miles per hour.
When the SR-71 Blackbird ruled the skies, the U.S. and its adversaries lacked advanced spy satellites that could take timely and accurate pictures. Today, however, that is no longer the case. Both the U.S. and its adversaries possess highly advanced spy satellites that can provide a detailed picture of an enemy’s order of battle. If that wasn’t enough, commercial satellites that are accessible to the public have democratized imagery collection—although not analysis.
What that means for the SR-72 is that Lockheed Martin and the Air Force are highly likely to arm the aircraft in order to make it more versatile and justify its expected high cost. And the most logical choice for a Mach 6 aircraft is hypersonic munitions.
“We’ve been saying hypersonics is two years away for the last 20 years, but all I can say is the technology is mature and we, along with DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] and the services, are working hard to get that capability into the hands of our warfighters as soon as possible,” Rob Weiss, Lockheed Martin’s executive vice president and general manager for Advanced Development Programs, had told Aviation Week about the development of the SR-72 in 2017.
The SR-72 Has Big Shoes to Fill
The SR-72 is the direct descendant of the legendary SR-71 Blackbird and is closely related—in terms of mission sets—to the venerable U-2 Dragon Lady. As a result, it has some very big shoes indeed to fill. For example, the U-2 arguably was key in preventing World War Three from starting.
In October 1962, the Russians had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba only a few hundred miles from the shores of the U.S. High-altitude flights from the U-2 revealed the presence of the Russian nukes and informed the decision of President John F. Kennedy to confront the Soviet Union’s leadership. If it wasn’t for the reconnaissance aircraft and the highly skilled analyst of the U.S. Intelligence Community, the U.S. political and military leadership would have been at a disadvantage vis a vis their Soviet counterparts.
The Cuban Missile Crisis is one of the few instances when the stealthy U-2 publicly showed its value and the benefit of a robust intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance fleet. Once the SR-71 Blackbird took to the skies in the mid-1960s, it continued to show the value of such aircraft, conducting highly dangerous missions over Soviet airspace, taking pictures of Soviet nuclear missile sites and military bases.
Flying at between 80,000 and 85,000 feet—an impressive 50,000 feet higher than commercial airliners, the SR-71 Blackbird was simply untouchable by enemy anti-aircraft weapon systems. To fly at such high altitudes, closer to space than to the earth, SR-71 Blackbird pilots had to wear spacesuits.
By the time the SR-71 Blackbird retired in 1998, an astounding 4,000 air-to-air and ground-to-air missiles had been fired at it in an attempt to shoot it down. The spy aircraft, however, was simply too fast for them.
If the SR-72 program does produce an operational aircraft, it will be facing different challenges, ranging from directed-energy weapons, such as lasers, and hypersonic munitions. And so, it will require new counter-measures.
1945’s New Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. His work has been featured in Business Insider, Sandboxx, and SOFREP.