Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works has confirmed that it is developing the SR-72 spy plane. The successor to the SR-71 Blackbird, which was capable of Mach 3.5, the SR-72 will be a hypersonic unmanned aircraft capable of Mach 6, or just over 4,500 mph.
At hypersonic speeds, the SR-72 will be able to traverse any continent in around an hour — meaning, if they’re strategically positioned around the world on aircraft carriers, the US military can strike or surveil any location on Earth in about an hour. It is also suspected that the SR-72′s hypersonic engine tech — some kind of hybrid scramjet — will find its way into the US military’s High Speed Strike Weapon (HSSW), a missile that can theoretically strike anywhere on Earth in just a few minutes.
The SR-71, or Blackbird as you probably know it, was the pinnacle of the US military’s Cold War reconnaissance efforts. Introduced in 1966, the Blackbird, with its hybrid turbojet/ramjet engines, was the fastest manned aircraft in the sky until it was retired in 1998. Despite being utterly massive — 107 feet (32 meters) long with a 55-foot (17-meter) wingspan — the SR-71 only had two crew and no weapons (it was loaded up with cameras, radio antennae, and other surveillance-oriented loadout). Due to high running costs, and reallocation of funds towards other efforts such as UAVs, the SR-71 was retired after 32 years of active service. Of 32 aircraft that were built, 12 were lost in accidents — but none were ever shot down or captured by the enemy.
The view out of the window of an SR-71 at 73,000 feet.
The SR-72, despite the similar name, is a completely new plane. At the moment, the SR-72 is still only a concept, though Lockheed has now confirmed that the plane is in active development. An optionally piloted scale version of the plane with a single engine will be built in 2018, with test flights scheduled for 2023. If all goes to plan (funding hasn’t yet been secured by Lockheed Martin), a full-size SR-72 (about 100 feet long) will be built and tested by 2030. As it stands, the current plan is for the SR-72 to be unmanned. It will be a very, very large drone. It will probably be unarmed, too, and outfitted entirely for intelligence gathering, though it’s too early to say for sure.
While the SR-72 will undoubtedly be a paragon of stealth and fashioned from monolithic crystals of titanium wrapped in carbon fiber, its defining feature is its operational speed of Mach 6 — or 4,567 mph (7,350 kph). At this speed, the SR-72 can cross the Atlantic (or Europe or China or…) in about an hour — or circumnavigate the planet in six hours. At an operational altitude of around 80,000 feet (24,300 meters) and Mach 6, the SR-72 will be almost impossible to shoot down.