Is Lockheed Martin's Hypersonic Spy Plane a Warfare Game-Changer?

SR-72. Photo: Lockheed Martin. 

Imagine a plane that's capable of traveling at Mach 6 and can fire hypersonic missiles at any target in the world, in less than an hour. According to Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT  ) , such a plane would be so fast, "an adversary would have no time to react or hide." Now, couple that speed with unmanned technology and you have Lockheed's SR-72, the "Son of Blackbird." More importantly, this plane could be a warfare game-changer -- and it could become operational by 2030. 

The Blackbird legacy
It looks like something out of science fiction, and indeed, if you've seen any of the "X-Men" movies, you've probably seen a modified version of Lockheed's SR-71 Blackbird. That's right -- the Blackbird is real. Moreover, in 1976, the Blackbird set the current air speed record by exceeding Mach 3 -- three times the speed of sound. However, that record may soon be broken as Lockheed's working on the SR-72, which it says will be twice as fast.

Further, the SR-72 is envisioned as an unmanned aircraft that could fly at altitudes of 80,000 feet and be powered by an off-the-shelf turbine with a supersonic combustion ramjet air-breathing jet engine, developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne and Lockheed's Skunk Works. To help reduce friction and guard against heat, the skin of the SR-72 is said to be titanium crystals wrapped in carbon fiber. 

More importantly, Brad Leland, Lockheed's Hypersonics program manager, said:

Hypersonic aircraft, coupled with hypersonic missiles, could penetrate denied airspace and strike at nearly any location across a continent in less than an hour. 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. 

In other words, the SR-72 will be too fast to shoot down, and too fast for targets to avoid being hit.

SR-72. Photo: Lockheed Martin.

Enemies beware
According to Aviation Week, the Air Force has a long-term hypersonic road map, and the SR-72 is designed to fill what the Air Force perceives as a growing gap in defense -- namely, mobile threats in denied airspace, particularly in countries with advanced air defenses and satellites.  

Thanks to the lessons learned from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, and Lockheed's Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2, the design of the SR-72 already has a leg up on hypersonic technical challenges.  

Even better? Lockheed told Aviation Week that the SR-72 would be an "affordable hypersonic intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike platform that could enter development in demonstrator form as soon as 2018." 

What to watch
Right now the SR-72 is just a concept, although it is in active development at Lockheed. What that means is the SR-72 still has a way to go. Further, while Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh has expressed interest in hypersonic technology, he hasn't commented on the Air Force's interest in the SR-72. However, according to National Defense, Welsh did say: "Anything you can do to decrease an adversary's decision timeline and give you the advantage in action is a good thing. So if it's practical to pursue hypersonics and create that ability to move at a much, much faster speed than we could in the past, it's worth pursuing." 

Nonetheless, if the SR-72 ever takes to the skies, it could be a game-changer for modern warfare -- but right now, that's still a big "if." But even if it doesn't make it past paper, the hypersonic technology being developed at Lockheed is something the Air Force is interested in, and it could prove to be lucrative for the company. If the Air Force does decide it wants the SR-72, Lockheed could see a healthy boost to its bottom line. Consequently, this is something investors should continue to monitor.

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Read/Post Comments (16) | Recommend This Article (8)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On December 07, 2013, at 4:47 PM, dubujul wrote:

    yeah.....publicize all the details so that our enemies will build it too, without any effort, and bomb the hell out of our of our troops, may be right here in the U.S. How do these reporters feel after something like this takes place...?. I need an answer.......

  • Report this Comment On December 07, 2013, at 6:11 PM, dadx wrote:

    the SR-71 was origanaly develope as a pursuit plane. after seeing the speed capabilities the government decide to utilize it as a spy plane.

    dubujul, if any "enemy" was going to build anything comparable, they would have tried to copy the original "blackbird" years ago...after all its been in service for at least 40 yrs...

  • Report this Comment On December 07, 2013, at 7:15 PM, maxsdad53 wrote:

    The SR71 was designed as the YF-12 interceptor, and was operational in 1963. it's "official" maximum speed was Mach 3.35 (2275mph). Part of my job with NORAD/AAD in the 70's was flight following the inbound and outbound legs of the SR-71... and after hooking up with KC-135 tankers, SOMETHING was flying outbound and over Provideniya in excess of 3000mph.

  • Report this Comment On December 07, 2013, at 11:04 PM, cdkeli wrote:

    Oh yeah sure it is,,,no doubt,,,right,,,

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 2:56 AM, JB2300 wrote:

    @dubujul What are you talking about. Our "enemies" those that are capable are already trying to do the same...It is an arms RACE.

    The U2 spy plane flew so high that no missile could shoot it down...Until one DID. So we went the another way. Rather than high and slow...We went high and FAST with the SR-71 That was 1964.

    The Russians spoke of a novel Hypersonic-high flying aircraft to help them counter Reagan's SDI initiative back in the early 80's

    So your little statement about our press "letting cats out of bags" really makes no sense.

    There is your answer.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 9:45 AM, Grandpastu wrote:

    How much is this fiasco going to cost us? As our citizens in Appalachia, western Tennessee and other areas continue to go hungry and uncared for!

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 11:13 AM, Wacked wrote:

    As long as our current President has no back bone or spine and is making coccessions to foes without regard to PACs and Alliances needs and security...then it does not matter what super weapon game changer is available. One, he is just dumb enough to give it to our foes just like how Bill Clinton gave ICBM data, computers and Hardware to the North Koreans back in the 1990s. Now, we are seeing those/that ICBM data and missiles on possibly nuclear tip missiles in the Middle East which will one day be aimed at DC and the Eastern Seaboard.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 6:56 PM, Chishiki wrote:

    The hypersonic technology developed from this project would have many important civilian uses.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 11:24 PM, JB2300 wrote:

    @Wacked Except that Clinton never did any such thing...And again our foes are already doing this or attempting to do this.

    Look at it this way...In 1900 man walked the Earth. In 1903 Orville and Wilbur made their first powered flight at Kitty Hawk...SIXTY SIX years later Armstrong walked on the freakin' moon SR-71 flew in 1964...Ever since then our foes have been working to go faster and higher. This story is in no way giving any secrets to anyone.

    In fact we already have prototypes of hypersonic aircraft flying right now...It is the Boeing X-51A...The "Blackswift" program was cancelled back in 08, DARPA Falcon and a few others...All in the works for YEARS and all were easily found by me on line.

  • Report this Comment On December 09, 2013, at 12:55 AM, Historybuff wrote:

    So when Aerojet Rocketdyne was naming their company, did they purposefully choose to evoke memories of the fictitious "Cyberdyne Systems" or was it a coincidence? Cause the name isn't the only plot similarities I'm seeing here.

  • Report this Comment On December 09, 2013, at 12:58 AM, dannystrong wrote:

    Hypersonics really only useful for the military. And by the way, a subsonic aircraft could fire hypersonic missiles -- in many ways its easier (passing through the shockwave of a hypersonic aircraft is not a simple process.) You don't need such an aircraft to launch missiles.

    It'd still be wicked cool, of course, to see 'em fly.

    For comparison -- at 83,000 feet, a reentering shuttle was moving around mach 2.5.

  • Report this Comment On December 09, 2013, at 1:09 AM, dannystrong wrote:

    Grandpastu, your argument is specious. Your assumption that the only money available for your mythical downtrodden would instead go to this project is ridiculous.

    There are lots of sources of money for such as your unhappy folk -- for instance the money spent to bribe farmers in Tennessee to grow "switchgrass" (and not food. Many people *like* food, you know.) Or some of those millions spent renovating the Tennessee Governor's mansion. Or some of those millions spent by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation -- to run the golf courses it owns. Yes, it owns. Or the hundreds of thousands Tennessee gave Volkswagon to put a sign on its Chattanooga factory--- that can only be seen from the air. Or half-a-million Tennessee spent this past year to build a "Birthplace of Country Music" museum -- in Virginia?

    Heal thyself.

  • Report this Comment On December 09, 2013, at 4:20 AM, moosepie wrote:

    I don't get why it says "reality in 2030"??? WHY not now? I can't be that darn sophisticated that they are "guessing" it will be possible in more than 15 years??? Stupid.

  • Report this Comment On December 09, 2013, at 5:03 AM, duudaa wrote:

    Our enemies know they can not beat us in the military arena. So they are doing it economically and we are way behind. Our debit will be used against us, its a national security problem that no ones wants to look at.

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2013, at 6:08 PM, Itachi441 wrote:

    @moosepie Because big leaps in technology like this takes incredible amounts of time and money. Lets not forget that this is still just an "idea" at the moment. If this is going to go mach 6, that is a lot of aero loads that the structure will be seeing, especially when its trying to change its direction. It is going to have to withstand high amount of gee forces, which is why it is going to be remote controlled and not piloted. They need to design a structure that is capable of withstanding these things and lets not forget all the research and development they have to do. Plus, they also have to do a bunch of tests to make sure it performs as promised and doesn't fail. Having done an internship with GA who is working on the Avenger drone, I myself have seen how long and slow projects can take and be. The Avenger's first test flight was back in 09 and is still being redesigned etc. So with so many advancements this plane will have, its no surprise it wont be out until 2030, if it even does make it and doesn't get canceled.

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2014, at 11:55 AM, reddwarfone wrote:

    There are people who claim the SR-72 is already flying. Three aircraft, resembling the SR-72, have been photographed in the skies over Texas flying in formation extremely fast at a very high altitude. When contacted, the Air Force refused to comment on the aircraft. Black Budget projects have a reputation of keeping the public in the dark concerning what they are doing.

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