Last week we noted that “hypersonic aircraft and missiles are being developed and tested by the United States, Russia, and China at an accelerating pace.” The race for hypersonic technologies has flourished among global superpowers, who realize that the first to possess these technologies will revolutionize their civilian and military programs.
Curiously, Lockheed Martin’s mysterious Skunk Works team might have just spilled the beans about a completed hypersonic aircraft ready to upgrade the long-retired Mach 3 SR-71 dubbed the “Son of Blackbird.”
Jack O’Banion, Vice President of Strategy and Customer Requirements, Advanced Development Programs for Lockheed Martin, spoke at an aerospace conference last week, where he suggested that the hypersonic SR-72 aircraft might already exist.
While speaking at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SciTech Forum, he presented a slide of a digital prototype of the hypersonic aircraft and stated, “ without the digital transformation” from new computing capabilities, the hypersonic aircraft could not have been developed.
“Without the digital transformation the aircraft you see there could not have been made,” O’Banion said, standing on stage. “In fact, five years ago, it could not have been made.”
O’Banion harped on the fact that computer processing power and new computer-aided design software contributed to the new radical design of the scramjet engine.
“We couldn’t have made the engine itself—it would have melted down into slag if we had tried to produce it five years ago,” O’Banion said.
“But now we can digitally print that engine with an incredibly sophisticated cooling system integral into the material of the engine itself, and have that engine survive for multiple firings for routine operation.” The aircraft is also agile at hypersonic speeds, with reliable engine starts, he said.
In the early 2000s, he added, developers “could not have even built it even if we conceived of it.”
Jack O'Bannion, VP of Strategy at Skunk Works, is speaking today at SciTech conference. He showed a slide of the SR-72 and said: "Without digital transformation that aircraft you see there could not have been made." Soooo ... does that mean that aircraft was made? pic.twitter.com/dD7ovOG0rg— Stephen Trimble (@FG_STrim) January 8, 2018
Last week, Google Earth found a mysterious “hypersonic aircraft” in the swamps of Florida hiding at a secret airbase, which looks similar to the SR-72. Conveniently, Pratt & Whitney and Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation are located just a stone’s throw away from the hidden airbase housing the mysterious aircraft. Interesting to note, Pratt & Whitney manufactures the scramjet engine for the X-51A WaveRider hypersonic vehicle.
Since the mysterious Skunk Works team resides in Palmdale, California, it is unlikely the hypersonic aircraft in Florida is the SR-72, but more related to the family of Falcon-Hypersonics.
According to Bloomberg, executives at Skunk Works could not provide further knowledge that “Lockheed Martin is preparing to turn over to the Pentagon a top-secret hypersonic aircraft, nor does it reveal how far the project may have progressed.” It is still a mystery if the aircraft would even be manned or unnamed.
Further, Lockheed failed to confirm any of O’Banion’s comments. The aerospace defense contractor “continues to advance and test technologies which will benefit hypersonic flight,” spokeswoman Melissa Dalton said in an email.
“A Reusable Hypersonic System (RHS) is a far term solution that will be made possible by the path-finding work we are doing today,” she added.
This is not that first time the media has focused on Lockheed’s hypersonic program.
Rob Weiss, Lockheed Martin’s executive vice president and general manager for Advanced Development Programs, previously told Aviation Week.
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.”
Simply, Weiss alludes to the hypersonic technology as “mature,” which may indicate the United States is on the verge of a hypersonic revolution.
Recently, Brad Leland, Lockheed’s program manager for Hypersonics outlines how hypersonic aircraft, coupled with hypersonic missiles could be the winning technique for the United States to stay relevant on the global stage.
“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.”
And so the world races towards hypersonic aircraft and weapons before the next global conflict. The good news, for the US, is that Americans via the Lockheed’s hypersonic program appear to have taken a commanding lead. The only question is whether America's superpower opponents, China and Russia, has been successful in secretly developing their own version of this particular "golden grail" for airborne combat.