Meet the SR-91 Aurora: Does a mysterious and highly secretive “hypersonic” spy plane called the SR-91 Aurora actually exist, or does it rather purely float and linger in the imagination of would-be high-tech “black” program enthusiasts?
The question is simple enough and at least raises a few interesting questions, should there actually be a next-generation spy plane capable of hitting hypersonic speeds of Mach 6 or faster, all while conducting clandestine, high-speed, high-altitude Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR). There have been many speculative reports, supposed sightings, and even “renderings” of a never-before-seen paradigm-changing aircraft.
There is little question that such a SR-91 platform would introduce new, potentially unprecedented tactical advantages, such as an ability to secretly surveil high-threat, high-risk areas and gather critical imagery or renderings of enemy assets, forces, buildings, and weapons platforms.
Should there be sensors capable of gathering renderings, video, or imagery while moving at hypersonic speeds, the combination of stealth, speed, and high altitude would doubtless be designed to evade the most modern, cutting-edge enemy sensors, ground radar, and air defense systems. That would likely be the rationale, however, there is reason to question the existence of such a platform or at least adjust thinking regarding its actual capabilities.
SR-91: The Likelihood of Such an Advanced Airframe
While there certainly may be paradigm-changing, stealthy high-tech aircraft or drones engineered to succeed the SR-71 Blackbird, the prospect of “manned” hypersonic flight is difficult to envision at the moment. Perhaps there are massive “discoveries” now being applied to platforms, which remain “black” or “unknown” to the public.
Such a thing would be great for any U.S. Military advantage, the possibility of moving “people” at hypersonic speeds in any capacity has been widely regarded as quite far off.
There are a number of reasons for this, primarily the “thermal management” and “boundary layer” airflow questions.
In a discussion with WarriorMaven as far back as 2014, former Air Force Chief Scientist Gregory Zacharias explained the maturation of hypersonic technology in terms of “stair steps.”
At the time he was of the view that hypersonic projectiles would successfully emerge in the 2020s, and he was indeed correct. Hypersonic drones, however, were something he envisioned as possible by the 2030s and a “recoverable” hypersonic drone might exist by the 2040s.
However, the idea of “manned” SR-91 hypersonic flight seemed somewhat beyond the realm, at least to Zacharias and other leading scientists eight years ago.
Certainly, much progress has been made in the area of “thermal management,” meaning various efforts to identify and engineer new combinations of composite materials capable of sustaining flight path trajectory and guidance to target at hypersonic speeds.
The Army and Air Force Research Laboratories, for example, have been working on this for quite some time with relative success. Sure enough, the Air Force’s ARRW (Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon) has already fired from a B-52, and the Army-Navy Long Range Hypersonic Weapon is slated to emerge this year.
Hypersonic weapons may be here … but a stealthy manned aircraft capable of flying at “hypersonic speeds?” … sure would be amazing.
A point made in an interesting essay in 19FortyFive last December raised the point that, should a hypersonic surveillance plane exist, it is most likely to be unmanned.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19 FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
Note: Image up top is of a SR-71 Blackbird.