One of our all-time favorite aircraft, the Lockheed-Martin SR-71 Blackbird, has spawned a successor to its place as the highest, fastest, most untouchable strategic reconnaissance platform that world has known of. While there has been much speculation about a successor for decades, this new animal, currently called the SR-72, is the only one Lockheed-Martin publicly acknowledges. While the Blackbird was designed with pencils, calculators, and slide rules, the SR-72 promises to be revolutionary–a game-changer on many levels.

CEO Marillyn Hewson of Lockheed-Martin Corporation briefed reporters this week on how the company plans to move boldly into the future. Hewson spoke extensively about the long-term need for new technologies, specifically an aircraft which was air-breathing and conventional takeoff/landing (CTOL) and could fly at hypersonic speeds–or twice what the mighty SR-71 Blackbird was capable of in its day. Enter the SR-72.

The world has become “a complex threat environment,” Hewson told reporters, a place of “unpredictable instability.” On the other hand, she said, “we’ve begun to see defense budgets stabilize … which adds some predictability.”

Spawn Of Blackbird: Lockheed-Martin's SR-72
Informational Graphic courtesy of Lockheed-Martin.

As all fighter pilots know, “Speed is Life!” and it provides a huge advantage in the aerial battlespace. Hewson said Lockheed could develop, build and demonstrate the a hypersonic aircraft roughly the size of an F-22, for under $1 Billion. A prototype SR-72 could be flying by 2018.

The brilliant minds at DARPA and Lockheed-Martin’s Advanced Development Programs division–the hallowed “Skunk Works,” have been theorizing, conceptualizing, and designing this new craft for several years now. Based on lessons learned with DARPA’s Force Application and Launch from Continental United States (FALCON) Project, embodied by HTV-2, the new aircraft will require a hybrid propulsion system. One portion of the system will support the CTOL portion of the flight envelope, and then a new-generation ramjet/scramjet to handle the hypersonic matters.

One of the largest challenges from an operational perspective, besides the engine technology, will be in the form of materials. The air friction alone at hypersonic speeds generates enough heat to melt steel–somewhere in the 3500-degrees-Fahrenheit range. On top of that, any weapons employment would likely happen from altitudes above 80,000 feet MSL. So the task is a daunting one, but with the Russians and the Chinese developing their own hypersonic technology, it’s nice to see some of the smartest people on the planet working on solving that problem.

But think about this for a moment: an aircraft able to take off and land conventionally, traveling at speeds six or seven times the speed of sound–about a mile per second–and capable of delivering next-generation precision-guided munitions. It could take off and be over any of the world’s seven continents in an hour or so. Not that you’d ever see it, mind you.

(Featured graphic courtesy of Lockeed-Martin)