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This hypersonic Blackbird can launch weapons from space

Mon, 11/04/2013 - 3:43pm
Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor

In aviation, it doesn’t get more chic than the SR-71 Blackbird, the Rolls Royce of the sky. From 1964 till its retirement in 1998, this supersonic, Mach 3+ reconnaissance (aka, spy) aircraft played a crucial role in the Cold War (and afterward) for over three decades. It also holds the world record for fastest air-breathing manned aircraft — naturally, since its standard procedure for evading missiles was flying faster. But ever since the Blackbird went to the Boca Raton of the skies, aviation buffs have been pining for a successor. And now they have one — the aptly named SR-72 Blackbird. And it’s glorious.

Aviation Week has the exclusive reveal on this bad boy — a hypersonic intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) unmanned strike platform designed to zip around at a brisk Mach 6 cruise (twice the speed of its predecessor). And you read that right — the SR-72, unlike the SR-71, will be a strike platform, capable of launching weapons from the edge of space.

Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division — which took the lead on the SR-71 Blackbird, among other projects — has designed the SR-72 from the ground-up to comply with the Air Force hypersonic road map, which supports development of a hypersonic strike weapon by 2020, and a “penetrating, regional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft — probably piloted — by 2030.”

According to Brad Leland, portfolio manager for air-breathing hypersonic technologies at Skunk Works, the outline plan for the operational SR-72 Blackbird calls for a twin-engine unmanned aircraft over 100 ft. long — “about the size of the SR-71 ... and the same range, but twice the speed.” (Perhaps the unmanned capability is up for discussion?)

Further, the finished high-speed ISR/strike aircraft must be able to survive a “day without space” — communication and navigation satellites — and to be able to penetrate denied areas. No easy task.

The key to satisfying this ambitious timeline and these sexy capabilities is by sticking to existing technologies and using off-the-shelf components (particularly for the engine). “As of now, there are no technologies to be invented. We are ready to proceed — the only thing holding us back is the perception that [hypersonics] is always expensive, large and exotic,” noted Leland.

The team at Skunk Works endeavored to build upon the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s failure — under the HiSTED (High-Speed Turbine Engine Demonstration) program — to produce a small turbojet capable of speeds up to Mach 4 in a turbine-based combined cycle (TBCC). According to Aviation Week, the Skunk Work designers faced a familiar problem: “how to bridge the gap between the Mach 2.5 maximum speed of current-production turbine engines and the Mach 3-3.5 takeover speed of the ramjet/scramjet.”

And they achieved a design breakthrough when they “developed a way to work with an off-the-shelf fighter-class engine like the F100/F110,” enabling a viable hypersonic SR-71 replacement.

Leland noted that Skunk Works has been working with Rocketdyne for the past seven years to “develop a method to integrate an off-the-shelf turbine with a scramjet to power the aircraft from standstill to Mach 6 plus.”

The finished ISR platform will scorch through the air at record speeds — so much so that its large engine inlets and aerodynamic requirements will preclude any stealth considerations. Unlike its predecessor — the first operational aircraft to utilize stealth technologies — the SR-72 will fully embrace the philosophy that “speed is the new stealth,” according to Al Romig, Skunk Works engineering and advanced systems vice president.

While the SR-71 sported a relatively small radar cross section — reducing its radar signature — the SR-72 will simply outfly the competition. “Even with the SR-71, at Mach 3, there was still time to notify that the plane was coming, but at Mach 6, there is no reaction time to hide a mobile target. It is unavoidable ISR,” said Leland. In other words, if you find yourself in the figurative crosshairs of the SR-72, you’re toast. It won’t matter if it sounds like the apocalypse (which it’ll feel like for the SR-72’s unfortunate victims) and is conspicuous as a full moon — Mach 6 leaves no time to react.

I’m eager to see this project develop, and while we won’t see a working SR-72 for at least a decade, aviation buffs (not to mention Sci-Fi nerds and fans of kick-ass military hardware) have their new Adonis of the sky.

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