Curious Timing for Lockheed’s Hypersonic Spy Plane Unveiling
SR-72 concept lands just as bomber contest heats up
It’s not every day one of America’s top airplane-makers announces, in the pages of Aviation Week & Space Technology, a design for a new hypersonic strike plane. The SR-72, a concept from Lockheed Martin’s famed Skunk Works division, has been years in the making and — if built — would become would one of the fastest warplanes ever.
It’s exciting stuff.
But the timing of the announcement is … curious. In late October, Lockheed also announced that it’s teaming up with Boeing to jointly pursue a contract for the Air Force’s stealthy new Long-Range Strike Bomber.
There’s nearly $60 billion on the table for LRS-B, and the competition is intense between Lockheed-Boeing and rival Northrop Grumman. All details of the bomber project are secret, so Northrop — which built the current B-2 stealth bomber — has taken to discreet means of lobbying the Air Force for the contract. At the Air Force Association conference in Maryland in September, the company handed out copies of a free in-house book chronicling the history of the B-2.
The book’s takeaway: Northrop knows how to build stealth bombers. Just not particularly fast ones, as the B-2 is subsonic.
But the Air Force is widely believed to want an LRS-B that’s both speedy and stealthy. Lo and behold, now Lockheed has revealed its Mach-6 design. But nowhere in its published comments regarding the SR-72 does Lockheed state that the new jet is meant to meet the LRS-B’s requirements. Instead, the company touts the SR-72 as a possible spy plane … that just happens to have add-on bombing capability.
Basically, it appears Lockheed is publicly claiming to be able to build a better next-gen bomber than Northrop, slyly circumventing the secrecy restrictions around the LRS-B bomber program by openly pitching its new strike plane without ever mentioning LRS-B.
Not coincidentally, both the SR-72 design and LRS-B are meant to go places the Air Force is increasingly concerned will become off-limits to current recon planes and bombers. Better radars, sensors and anti-aircraft weapons from rising powers such as China have caused consternation at the Pentagon that many of its Cold War-era warplanes are becoming obsolete.
Lockheed’s answer with SR-72 is hypersonic speed using experimental ramjet engines. The hot, noisy engines could be hard to keep stealthy. “With large engine inlets and aerodynamic requirements overriding most considerations, the SR-72 concept shows little in the way of stealthy planform alignment,” AvWeek’s Guy Norris noted.
But the SR-72 may travel so fast it simply won’t matter how detectable it is. “Speed is the new stealth,” Al Romig, Lockheed Skunk Works’ engineering and advanced systems vice president, told Norris.
And the spy plane concept, apparently, is Lockheed’s way of arguing it should build the Air Force’s next bomber.