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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

SR-72 Darkstar – The Top Gun: Maverick ‘Mach 10’ Plane Is ‘Real’

SR-72 Artist Rendering. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

More than 100,000 people at an air show in California were able to see the new mockup of the SR-72 Darkstar spy plane, which was featured in the blockbuster movie Top Gun: Maverick (it hit Mach 10 in the movie). The Hollywood version of the Darkstar sat beside the SR-71 Blackbird in October at the Aerospace Valley Open House and Air Show at Edwards Air Force Base, California. The SR-72 is known as the “Son of Blackbird,” so this was a generational public relations moment for the Darkstar program and Lockheed Martin Skunk Works

Doubling down on speed

The SR-71 in its heyday was an ultra fast, high-flying machine, but the stealthy SR-72 might eventually reach speeds of Mach-6, nearly twice the velocity of the SR-71.

The Darkstar will be unmanned and capable of gathering the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data expected from a spy plane, but it might also have ground strike features.

Mix that with hypersonic flight, and you have a noteworthy craft for the U.S. Air Force.

Lockheed has developed a combined cycle dual-mode engine that has ramjet features. Dual mode means that a turbine engine cycle provides thrust from takeoff to Mach-3, at which point the ramjet takes over to reach Mach-6. The idea is to outrun enemy warplanes and air defenses.

Engineers from Skunk Works designed the version of the Darkstar that appeared in the film. While that was a fictional prop, rumor has it the Chinese were interested in getting a glimpse of the mockup before the movie was even released, because it seemed so real.

Skunk Works has been working on the SR-72 since 2013 and tested its engines in 2017. It may reach initial operational capability by 2030, with full service in the Air Force following a few years later.

The unmanned bird is likely to be autonomous and could see service as a hypersonic bomber while flying out ahead of the B-21 Raider and the F-35 Lightning II.

High Hopes and Hollywood Dreams for the Darkstar

Hypersonic weapon technology should be mature by the time the Son of Blackbird is ready to fly regularly. It will need to be, because, traveling at Mach-6, the Darkstar will need to launch hypersonic weapons.

There are additional challenges: Performing turns and opening bomb bay doors will be difficult and will require a significant amount of ingenuity from designers and engineers. The shape of the airplane will be interesting.

Military Factory describes concept art for the SR-72 as having “underslung twin air intakes, slim low-mounted delta wing assemblies, and a single vertical tail fin.”

The SR-72 will not have a cockpit, and all avionics and controls will be inside the fuselage. The SR-71 could reach 85,000 feet, and the Son of Blackbird could fly even higher – perhaps even reaching near space altitudes

While the Hollywood buzz is exciting for the SR-72 program, the Son of Blackbird still needs a lot of work, and a lot of funds. The hype could run into delays and cost overruns any year.

The speed and altitude goals are ambitious, and the unmanned features will have to be integrated with manned airplanes.

But the public interest in the Darkstar could translate into Congressional and Pentagon support for its development. A hit movie may influence reality.

Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood 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. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s 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.



  1. xheavy

    December 8, 2022 at 12:22 am

    The so called Darkstar is a dream. And thats where it stays.

    The Pentagon is a funny place. Top heavy with Command issuing orders and directives and so on. However it takes longer for Reality to flow back into the place.

    There are other assets doing distant reconnaissance work reliably for years. Forte 10, 11 and 12 comes to mind from Italy over Ukraine constantly for months. If they happened to be taken out either on purpose or by mistake? No problem as they are unmanned.

    Surveillance is increasingly walled off from us mere mortals. Its only given to those in Leadership. So even if they did build the Darkstar or whatever you want to call it its not for our benefit as a People.

  2. Monkey Bite 2

    December 8, 2022 at 12:26 pm

    I was close the the head of the test pilot program for the 117 When the SR71 was retired I asked if there was a replacement in place and he assured me it was way back then we are still in the dark all these years laters it was in operation lol

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