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Air Force Highlights SR-72 Blackbird Successor on New Poster

The proposed successor to the SR-71 Blackbird, the unmanned, hypersonic SR-72, would travel at twice the speed of the SR-71, penetrating defended airspace and striking a target before being detected. (U.S. Air Force Graphic by Maureen Stewart)

Lockheed Martin’s legendary Skunk Works, developers of some of the nation’s most top secret aircraft, have for years been working on bringing to life the proposed successor to the iconic SR-71 Blackbird.

Known as the SR-72, the unmanned hypersonic (a term that refers to speeds above Mach 5) aircraft would fly twice as fast as Blackbird.

That’s not a typo either, SR-72 is promised to reach an incredible Mach 6 while cruising.

Blackbird on takeoff. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Such a capability would allow for the bird to penetrate enemy airspace undetected to strike a target before they even knew it was there, and a prototype was recently spotted.

“Hypersonic aircraft, coupled with hypersonic missiles, could penetrate denied airspace and strike at nearly any location across a continent in less than an hour,” said Brad Leland, Lockheed Martin program manager, Hypersonics.

“Speed is the next aviation advancement to counter emerging threats in the next several decades. The technology would be a game-changer in theater, similar to how stealth is changing the battlespace today.”

Artist render of the SR-72. Credit: Lockheed Martin

A total of 32 Blackbird were built in complete secrecy, piloted by 93 USAF crew over its military service, and not a single one was ever shot down. The advanced, long-range, supersonic strategic reconnaissance aircraft that called Beale Air Force Base home from January 1966 to January 1990, was simply too fast for the missiles fired at them.

But SR-72, as you can see in the poster, is not just reconnaissance, it will be packing serious firepower to rain hell on adversaries as well, and earlier this year Skunk Works divulged some new information about the SR-72 program.

Work to develop a hypersonic successor has been a long time in the making, pretty much since the turn of this century, but now Lockheed is confident in the advancement of the tech, which is a merger of elements of a supersonic jet engine and rocket engine, known as combined cycle engine.

Lockheed partnered with Aerojet Rocketdyne, builder of the space shuttle RS-25 reusable rocket engine, to create an engine capable of powering the aircraft from a standstill to 6 times the speed of sound.

Ground tests were conducted from 2013-2017, and now Skunk Works is ready to start full scale development of a flight research vehicle (FRV), about the size of an F-22 according to Lockheed.

“We’re proving a hypersonic aircraft can be produced at an affordable price,” said Marillyn Hewson, Chairman, President and CEO of Lockheed Martin. “We estimate it will cost less than $1 billion to develop, build and fly a demonstrator aircraft the size of an F-22.”

SR-72 render. Credit: Lockheed Martin

“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 and the services, are working hard to get that capability into the hands of our warfighters as soon as possible,” said Lockheed’s Rob Weiss, executive vice president and general manager for Skunk Works.

Development of SR-72 also comes as a result of the rocket-launched Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2) research and development project, which was designed to collect data on three technical challenges of hypersonic flight: aerodynamics; aerothermal effects; and guidance, navigation and control.

SR-72’s design takes lessons learned from the HTV-2, which flew to a top speed of Mach 20 (13,000 mph).

The SR-71 Blackbird. Credit: U.S. Air Force, Judson Brohmer

SR-72 could reach North Korea from California in just 90 minutes, and having two on opposite sides of Earth could give the U.S. the capability to strike at hypersonic speed anywhere around the world within that time frame.

But it would operate in a very different world than the SR-71. For example, missiles shoot down missiles these days, and laser weapons are now a real thing, so speed alone as being enough of a defense is arguable at best.

In addition, satellite tech is exceptional these days; every inch of the Earth’s surface can be observed and imaged 24/7 in absolute stunning detail, dwarfing anything Blackbird was capable of.

Ten Blackbirds at Beale AFB 1991. Credit: USAF

So why bring on SR-72? Especially considering the vast arsenal U.S. military aviation already holds?

Because we can?

Lockheed hopes to fly the FRV around the turn of this decade, early 2020s, followed by flights with a full scale, Blackbird-size, twin-engine SR-72, with the first operational missions beginning before 2030.

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Follow Mike Killian on Instagram and Facebook, @MikeKillianPhotography 

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Written by Mike Killian

Mike Killian

Killian is an aerospace photographer and writer, with a primary focus on spaceflight and military and civilian aviation. Over the years his assignments have brought him onboard NASA's space shuttles, in clean rooms with spacecraft destined for other worlds, front row for launches of historic missions and on numerous civilian and military flight assignments.

When not working the California-native enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, storm chasing, producing time-lapses and shooting landscape and night sky imagery, as well as watching planes of course.

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