More than 100,000 people at an air show in California last year 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 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.
Darkstar Plane: 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.
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.