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Born in the spy-vs.-spy cauldron of the Cold War, the iconic SR-71 “Blackbird” remains the fastest air-breathing military aircraft the world has known. It flew so high and so fast that enemy defenses were powerless to intercept it. Eventually, satellite technology and advanced radar eroded its advantage. In 1998, the U.S. Air Force retired it. Now, with regional threats growing and portable surface-to-air missiles evolving, engineers have once again set out to build the fastest military jet on the planet.
This time, it will take the form of a 4,000-mile-per-hour reconnaissance drone with strike capability. Known as the SR-72, the aircraft will evade assault, take spy photos, and attack targets at speeds of up to Mach 6. That’s twice as fast as its predecessor.
Aeronautical engineers at Lockheed Martin and Aerojet Rocketdyne have been designing the SR-72 at their Skunk Works black site in California for the past several years. It will require a hybrid propulsion system: a conventional, off-the-shelf turbo jet that can take the plane from runway to Mach 3, and a hypersonic ramjet/scramjet that will push it the rest of the way. Its body will have to withstand the extreme heat of hypersonic flight, when air friction alone could melt steel. Its bombs will have to hit targets from possibly 80,000 feet.Once it is, the plane’s ability to cover one mile per second means it could reach any location on any continent in an hour—not that you’ll see it coming.
Lockheed says the craft could be deployed by 2030.
"We are now on the verge of a hypersonic revolution."
—Brad Leland, Lockheed Martin's Hypersonic Program Manager