With all the talk lately of hypersonic missiles and spacecraft, one highly advanced piece of technology might be quietly flying under the radar. Pun intended. Lockheed Martin is developing a new hypersonic plane, the SR-72. If they are successful, it will be the fastest plane in the world, capable of reaching speeds of Mach 6.

The recent discovery that China launched a hypersonic weapon over the summer, has the world buzzing. The launch caught everyone off guard, including the U.S. intelligence community. The Chinese hypersonic technology is more developed than anticipated or believed. However, it did miss its intended target. This suggests they still have a long way to go in the development of guidance systems, and likely guidance and avionics systems shielding. China downplayed the launch calling the missile a “space vehicle.”

The United States has been developing hypersonic weapons and capabilities for some time. It is the next logical step in weapons technology. In fact, while recent and next-generation fighters and bombers are experimenting with stealth, speed might actually be better.

Developing hypersonic planes will possibly be the “new stealth,” as stealth can potentially be defeated. Speed, however, requires such a huge jump in technology, it might take a lot of time and development for everyone else to catch up. Pun also intended.

SR-71 front view
A front view of an SR-71 aircraft assigned to Detachment 4, 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, as it prepares for takeoff. (DVIDS)

To Understand the SR-72, Look at the SR-71

The fastest and most advanced plane of its time is still the fastest plane of our time. The SR-71 Blackbird is considered ancient in the rapid technological development of aircraft in the last 100 years. Almost 60 years later, however, there is still nothing that flies faster or higher.

The SR-71 was the evolution of several different programs. The CIA wanted a high-flying, fast plane that was undetectable. The Air Force wanted a strategic, supersonic bomber capable of carrying nuclear weapons. After a few versions, and combining various roles, requirements, and planes, the SR-71 was the result. It was not, however, a bomber.

The Blackbird excelled at Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR). These advanced planes carried extensive optics, imagery, and surveillance systems. It could operate at sustained altitudes of over 80,000 feet, with a peak altitude record of over 85,000 feet. That altitude is so high that SR-71 pilots basically wore spacesuits and helmets. When they looked up, they saw the blackness of space. The speed record for aircraft flight is also owned by the SR-71: Mach 3.3or 2,193.7 mph. A record that has stood since 1976.

By comparison, the fastest Russian aircraft ever built is about 500 mph slower.