What's The Deal With Lockheed's Gabbing About The Secretive Hypersonic SR-72?
Could the exotic and shadowy jet concept be much further along in development than Lockheed is letting on?
In a followup to his widely distributed 2013 piece about Lockheed Skunk Works's "SR-72" hypersonic plane concept, Guy Norris puts some interesting new quotes into print from a top exec at the legendary "bleeding-edge" aerospace weapons development firm.
Rob Weiss, Lockheed Martin’s executive vice president and general manager for Advanced Development Programs told Norris the following recently:
“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... I can’t give you any timelines or any specifics on the capabilities. It is all very sensitive. Some of our adversaries are moving along these lines pretty quickly and it is important we stay quiet about what is going on. We can acknowledge the general capability that’s out there, but any program specifics are off limits.”
What Weiss is referring to as far as enemy capabilities currently in development are thoroughly described in The War Zone's recent feature on hypersonic weapons. Basically both Russia and China are actively pursuing hypersonic capabilities to varying degrees, and some argue America is falling behind both in fielding our own similar systems and defending against the enemy's emerging capabilties.
Weiss's comments, and ones made earlier by Lockheed's CEO Marillyn Hewson, have pointed toward the next step in the SR-72's development being integrating the "combined cycle" engine and other technologies associated with hypersonic flight into a flying technology demonstrator roughly the size of an F-22. Such an endeavor would be "affordable" according to Hewson, carrying less than a one billion dollar price tag.
All things considered, we are, and have been hearing a tremendous amount of information about what is clearly a highly classified program, coming from the contractor directly no less. This is highly peculiar. And parts of this technology have been in the works for decades. The "combined cycle" propulsion system capable of taking an aircraft from sitting on the runway well through mach five has been in development since at least the mid 2000s by Lockheed and its partner on the project Aerojet Rocketdyne. Additionally, past hypersonic vehicle tests by the USAF have also garnered valuable insights into this extreme flight environment, and there are likely many other major breakthroughs gained over the years from programs we know nothing about.
So why are we getting bread crumb trails dropped to Aviation Week periodically as to the maturity of the technology and the program? Doing so seems like a very strange move considering we don't even hear a peep about far less exotic technological developments—like the existence of advanced unmanned combat air vehicles for instance.
I would posit that it is very possible the Skunk Works and its USAF partners are actually farther along in the SR-72's development than they let on. Possibly even past the point of a small demonstrator, and already fielding a full-size prototype, or even an operational capability. In other words, what we may be hearing about are post-dated echoes of the program's past. The only other reason as to why Lockheed would be so willing to blabber about their hypersonic flying unicorn is that they need money from Uncle Sam to fund it. But that seems unlikely as it is highly doubtful the company has funded the concept's development for over a decade on its own, beyond a relatively small amount of money granted by NASA to explore the technology. In fact, Weiss says that Lockheed is not alone on the project in any way in his latest statement, noting that "DARPA and the services" are directly involved.
None of this directly address the very valid question as to why the Pentagon even needs a super high-end hypersonic space plane in the first place? Certainly the service doesn't need it for reconnaissance primarily—which also puts the whole "SR" moniker for the jet highly in doubt and likely a marketing tool more than anything else.
Brad Leland, Lockheed's program manager for Hypersonics makes the case for the jet on the company's website, stating:
“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.”
Regardless of whether an "SR-72" is a good investment or not, considering how competent Lockheed and their Air Force colleagues are at keeping secrets, the SR-72's strange "gray world" existence makes little sense. And hey, something has to live in that huge new remote hangar at Area 51 right? Maybe that facility's tenant is the aircraft being described still as a "paper concept" here today.
In the end, I would suggest being open to taking SR-72 related news as more of an indication of what is, instead of what could be.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com