Aviation Week’s Guy Norris dropped a pretty huge story Friday about a follow-on of sorts, but not really, to the legendary SR-71 Blackbird. Lamely named the SR-72 for marketing’s sake, this machine will be unmanned, capable of mach 6 speeds, have about the same range and dimensions of the SR-71, and will also be able to carry munitions as a secondary mission requirement. Breakthroughs in hybrid engine and inlet design, some of which are not fully described, will apparently make this hypersonic “regional” armed spy feasible. The aircraft would fill two roles that are on the DoD’s to do list. First it would provide on demand strategic reconnaissance, basically satellite imagery but in a semi-unpredictable surprise fashion, and some form of prompt global strike. Basically, when you need pictures or the destruction of a target within hours or even minutes, anywhere in the world, this thing could potentially offer a solution.
I will not retype the Aviation Week story, please read it for yourself here, but basically in an eyebrow raising change of standard operating procedures, Lockheed’s “bleeding edge” design house of great fame is basically making the “Shamwow” pitch for this vehicle, complete with wiz-bang art, aggressive timescales, and even a “throwback” name, the SR-72. I mean its one better than the SR-71, how could America not love that right?!? Well such a silver bullet concept sounds nice, it will come at great cost and is strangely a competitor with the massive Long Range Strike-Bomber (known as LRS-B) contract currently in development in the “gray” and “black” world.
What it sounds like is that Lockheed Martin is hedging their bets when it comes to winning the LRS-B contract. They are now teamed with Boeing for their bid at effectively remodeling America’s strategic bomber fleet with a stealthy, long range, multirole platform, also adept at strategic reconnaissance, although in a much more persistent nature when compared to this SR-72 idea. Lockheed’s prime competitor for the LRS-B, which will probably be the last bomber built till the later half of the century, or ever, is Northrop Grumman, who that have written the book on strategic stealth bombers with their B-2 Spirit, one of America’s most prized military possessions to this day. In other words, whoever loses this contract, now a top priority (thank goodness) within the USAF, will probably be out of the “strategic” long-range heavy weapons platform business for good. With all this in mind, we suddenly see Lockheed coming out of the darkness with a pitch for a mach 6 heavy strategic spy and attack jet? They call it an information, surveillance and reconnaissance platform (ISR), but how much data can you really get beyond a snapshot when you come barreling through a target area at 3600mph!?!? The whole things sounds like plea for development dollars to provide a backstop for staying in the airborne strategic weapons platform marketplace should the LRS-B contract go to Northrop Grumman, and who better to raise the public’s attention to a capability that is sure to get 10 year old boys and four star generals who can never have enough speed or noise salivating? Lockheed’s legendary Skunkworks, magical builders of super-weapons, of course!
Yet look at the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, at one time well over 100 were planned to be built, but rising costs and world events would see that number cut to 21 airframes. Now, this once upon a time mainline bomber is a silver bullet force unto itself, one that costs astronomical numbers to maintain. So how on earth are we going to develop a next generation bomber, field it in relevant numbers, an all stealth fighter force via the F-35, procure a fleet of new tankers and develop a stable of mach 6 prompt strike and strategic reconnaissance aircraft? Where are the dollars going to come from? Additionally, what does this say about survivability of stealth assets currently being developed and bought by the tonnage? An almost glowing, 100 foot hot chunk of sonic booming metal, flying at over 100k feet is a good investment, but wide aspect slow and quiet stealth is not? This may be so, but it sure does not help with the argument for a new stealth bomber does it? I don’t want to delve into this much farther as my Netcentric Warfare 2.0 piece goes into stealth detection quite deeply, but the question is a valid one. Also, surface to air missile systems, and especially anti-ballistic missile systems, are advancing rapidly. Sure mach 6 is fast, very fast, but hitting a relatively tiny ballistic missile warhead as it reenters the lower atmosphere is currently a reality, not science fiction. If this is possible, how long will it until a relatively mission inflexible gold-plated asset like the SR-72 will be countered by the exact potential enemy it was built to survey, attack and deter, a peer state competitor like China? Between the technology involved and its limited purposed applications, I just see the risk for such an expensive project as bordering on absurd, especially during the current economic turmoil. Going after a hypersonic spy plane at this juncture in American fiscal history would be like someone who is not paying their rent in full going out an buying a cigarette boat. This capability is a luxury, not a necessity.
Another conflict in “philosophy” that this proposed program brings to light is an apparent new need for “surprise strategic surveillance.” It makes some sense, the faster an object that is tasked with taking your picture or blowing you up arrives unannounced, the less time the subject in question has to scoot out of sight or change their location entirely. Yet this machine will be hard pressed to be considered stealthy. It may show up unannounced and is gone very quickly, but it still shows up. Yet isn’t this what stealthy assets are for, and arguably could do it at much lower cost? Aircraft like the RQ-170 do one better than the SR-72 in that they provide persistent monitoring of the enemy in a stealthy manner. A picture in time says a thousands words but hours of video, ESM, and high-resolution radar data tell almost the whole story. In other words, it would seem that low observable drones, paired with electronic attack, hacking, or even diversion, could probably get this same job if not even a better job done at a fraction of the price, although without all the sex appeal. This is not just my opinion, the USAF stepped away from the SR-71 and concepts like it in the 1990s because persistent surveillance was just so much more attractive than snapshot surveillance and satellites were more than capable of taking a picture of a moment in time (make sure you read this piece for more information on all this). None the less, the USAF is finally realizing that during a real peer state conflict, our enemy could knock out key satellites. In this case the SR-72 could provide some coverage for capabilities lost, but how many of these things would you really need to even begin making a dent on losing our large array of intelligence satellites? Maybe the billions spent on such a weapons system would be better invested in securing our military satellites, making them more maneuverable (see the X-37B), and less accessible to enemy anti-satellite capabilities.
When it comes to prompt global strike, when a target is of such high value or the intelligence prompting the strike has a short “actionable” lifespan, expendables are probably a much better choice than a super high-end, low fleet density, hypersonic spy and strike platform. A family of expendable systems, such as hypersonic cruise missile launched from an SSBN or from a regional base, and/or bomber launched hypersonic cruise missiles just make more dollars and sense than a silver bullet multi-billion dollar hypersonic drone.
I find this whole disclosure by Lockheed to be, well, just strange. Although, as I described above, I see the business strategy behind it. Lockheed has pulled out all the stops on this one, a big expose in Aviation Week, a name that pulls on the “heartstrings” of Blackbird lovers everywhere, and renderings that will elicit a dopamine response from those who have been obsessed for decades with a fictional hypersonic beast of an aircraft loosely named Aurora. Some aviation editors just won’t let that puppy die, they keep swinging at it even after endless misses, in hopes that their own dreams may be true. The reality is that the public just loves the idea of Aurora, even though strategically it is a dinosaur and was so even during the 80′s when aircraft like Tacit Blue were proving that you could literally hang out over enemy territory and reconnoiter the battlefield for hours on end in a survivable nature. In the end we must look at our priorities, and sadly a weapon like this just is not one of them. If Lockheed wins the LRS-B contract, a competition they are investing heavily in as the stakes are ridiculously high, then expect the SR-72 to go back on the ash heap of aviation history. If they lose, expect them to make a full frontal assault on the “survivability” of a next generation stealth bomber, as they have just the alternative waiting in the wings, oh and thanks to Friday’s little media blitz, pictures of it are already hanging on the walls of adolescent boys and some defense journalists who will never give up their long-held dreams of a true “Aurora.”