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America's Fastest Spy Plane May Be Back -- And Hypersonic (bloomberg.com) 301

A Lockheed Skunk Works executive implied last week at an aerospace conference that the successor to one of the fastest aircraft the world has seen, the SR-71 Blackbird, might already exist. Previously, Lockheed officials have said the successor, the SR-72, could fly by 2030. Bloomberg reports: Referring to detailed specifics of company design and manufacturing, Jack O'Banion, a Lockheed vice president, said a "digital transformation" arising from recent computing capabilities and design tools had made hypersonic development possible. Then -- assuming O'Banion chose his verb tense purposely -- came the surprise. "Without the digital transformation, the aircraft you see there could not have been made," O'Banion said, standing by an artist's rendering of the hypersonic aircraft. "In fact, five years ago, it could not have been made." Hypersonic applies to speeds above Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound. The SR-71 cruised at Mach 3.2, more than 2,000 mph, around 85,000 feet.

"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. A half-decade before, he added, developers "could not have even built it even if we conceived of it."

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America's Fastest Spy Plane May Be Back -- And Hypersonic

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  • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Wednesday January 17, 2018 @05:09AM (#55944571) Homepage

    The programme was killed because they were a pain to maintain. Advancing needs meant that they would have on top of that had to spend money on a tech upgrade (such as adding a realtime data link). Meanwhile, there were programmes hungry for its budget, including stealth aircraft (B2) and drones (Global Hawk).

    That said, in today's threat environment, I'm sure mach 5 would be appreciated ;)

    • by Chrisq ( 894406 ) on Wednesday January 17, 2018 @05:57AM (#55944725)
      I thought that they were superseded by satellite imaging
      • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Wednesday January 17, 2018 @06:21AM (#55944797) Journal
        In part. Satellites are conveniently cheap(when amortized across the amount of area they cover; and how long they cover it; they are not 'cheap' in terms of sticker price); but don't fly any lower than earth orbit and are predictable against any vaguely competent adversary(tracking satellite launches is a hobbyist thing; and downloading their conclusions to know when you are being over-flown is easier still); and continuous coverage requires either lots of satellites to blanket one of the lower orbits; or satellites in geostationary orbits which are quite distant and have the accompanying challenges to getting good image quality.

        If you really need a surprise inspection of a specific place at a specific time the gap isn't really filled; but having satellite sensors to work with keeps you from being in the dark; and you can use drones or less capable aircraft in places where adversary air defenses aren't all that interesting.

        Nothing quite fills the niche; but filling the niche is an expensive specialty operation; and one that might become quite risky if anyone is capable of pumping out SAMs of similar tech level; since they don't have to support a pilot or a bunch of cameras; just have to hit you; which makes outrunning them without being substantially more advanced a bit nerve-wracking.
        • by mjwx ( 966435 ) on Wednesday January 17, 2018 @08:44AM (#55945205)

          In part. Satellites are conveniently cheap(when amortized across the amount of area they cover; and how long they cover it; they are not 'cheap' in terms of sticker price); but don't fly any lower than earth orbit and are predictable against any vaguely competent adversary(tracking satellite launches is a hobbyist thing; and downloading their conclusions to know when you are being over-flown is easier still); and continuous coverage requires either lots of satellites to blanket one of the lower orbits; or satellites in geostationary orbits which are quite distant and have the accompanying challenges to getting good image quality.

          Satellites were also hard to detect and shoot down. ASAT weapons are relatively expensive.

          The SR-72 was not undetectable, quite the contrary, anything travelling at Mach 5 will show up on weather radar (even if it's just the wake turbulence). Its main defence was that it flew so fast that by the time you've targeted and launched your fastest missile at it, the SR-72 was out of range. This can be countered in the same way they've countered stealth bombers, by launching missiles into its flight path in advance. Any modern integrated defence system can do this with ground or air based missiles.

          Manoeuvring whilst travelling at 1,500m/s isn't easy either.

          • by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Wednesday January 17, 2018 @10:29AM (#55945833) Homepage Journal

            Satellites were also hard to detect and shoot down. ASAT weapons are relatively expensive.

            Now that the work on satellite-to-satellite communications has been done, that's not true any more, since the difference between a satellite with that technology and a satellite-killing satellite is one of laser power. Now it's relatively inexpensive to kill satellites, as long as you can afford to launch satellites. I'd bet money that at least the US and Russia already have satellite-killing satellites in orbit, masquerading as something else. It would be frankly irresponsible not to.

        • In part. Satellites are conveniently cheap(when amortized across the amount of area they cover; and how long they cover it; they are not 'cheap' in terms of sticker price); but don't fly any lower than earth orbit and are predictable against any vaguely competent adversary

          Against a highly competent adversary they're sitting ducks, tracking nice, predictable orbits and completely defenseless against a canister of ball bearings in their path. Given that, there may be value in having a more survivable and harder-to-stop camera platform. It may even be worth telling potential adversaries about your hypersonic spyplane in order to deter them from building anti-satellite capabilities. Though if they're sufficiently competent they may respond by building anti-satellite capabilities

        • SAMS are not a big worry. A hypersonic plane travels at least a mile a second, if the time it takes from initial detection to firing is 3 minutes, the SAM will have to chase down the plane, it would need to have a range of 500 miles to catch it.

          • the SAM will have to chase down the plane

            Why? Chasing it means you're already too late. You absolutely need to strike it as it is approaching. It's also very helpful in terms of using the vehicle's own kinetic energy against it.

      • by Greyfox ( 87712 )
        Satellites take forever and the pixels are really chunky. They also have trouble with cloud cover. If you want a bag of pixels from today, you're probably not going to get them from a satellite. A turn-around time of three days on a satellite would be astounding. Yeah, you might be able to get some shitty off-nadir and cloudy pixels from 15-20 hours ago with an appropriately-placed briefcase full of cash, otherwise you can generally assume that the pixels you're looking at are weeks-to-months old.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Aighearach ( 97333 )

          The military has their own satellites, they neither have to wait a long time, nor hand over briefcases full of cash.

          • by Greyfox ( 87712 )
            There are some aspects of flying a satellite that are the same no matter who you are. One is that the satellite can't just go anywhere. You have to wait until it gets to what you want to take a picture of, and the sun has to be in the correct position. If you look too far left or right, your images will have a lot of distortion and it'll be hard to determine individual pixel coordinates. If your satellite does happen to be right over what you want to look at right now, you can't just tell it to turn and loo
            • You have to wait until it's over an antenna to send it instructions and then wait until it's over another antenna to get its images.

              I'm pretty sure this in particular has been eliminated by modern satellite-based communication networks. I mean, NASA has had TDRS for decades; you think the military is less advanced in this respect? (The other issues remain, of course.)

        • by Dutch Gun ( 899105 ) on Wednesday January 17, 2018 @08:35AM (#55945169)

          That doesn't take into account technologies which penetrate cloud cover, like infrared and high resolution terrain mapping radar. Your argument about "chunky" images may have been true a few decades ago, but I'd be willing to bet that modern military spy sats have excellent optics, given how good even civilian ones are these days. And since when do military services need to bribe each other with a briefcase full of cash to get up-to-date satellite intelligence? You just need to have enough stars on your uniform, or be placed highly enough in the government.

          That being said, I think you hit on the correct answer, if not via the correct line of reasoning. The dominant feature of a spyplane is its flexibility in deployment. Any competent enemy will know exactly when spy satellites are passing overhead, being easily observed and predictable in motion. A spyplane can provide very focused reconnaissance whenever and however military planners want.

          • Spy satellites had optics good enough to read billboards back in the 80s, I wouldn't be surprised if they could read license plates today.

            • Spy satellites had optics good enough to read billboards back in the 80s

              Very large billboards, perhaps.

              I wouldn't be surprised if they could read license plates today.

              Well, I for one would be because that would violate the diffraction limit for practical optics.

          • And since when do military services need to bribe each other with a briefcase full of cash to get up-to-date satellite intelligence?

            All the time! Services and agencies are not only constantly competing with each other for limited resources, they also like to try and undermine each other by deliberately not sharing intelligence.

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      The problem was other jets got better and could reach up further with some accuracy e.g. Foxhound, R-33.
      The SR 71 support was coveted by other agencies wanting space budgets.
      e.g. Manned Orbiting Laboratory https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org] and the later unmanned reconnaissance satellites.
      Nothing was going to be allowed to take away from the prestige of the new unmanned reconnaissance satellites.
    • And because improvements in satellite tech made its spying role obsolete. But good hypersonic engines have all kinds of other uses.

      • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 ) on Wednesday January 17, 2018 @09:15AM (#55945373)

        There's a story from one of the SR-71 crews about being shot at with a Russian SAM. It missed, but came close. If the SR-71 hadn't been retired one would have been shot down eventually.

        • by Rei ( 128717 )

          There were over 1000 recorded attempts to shoot them down. None came particularly close. Among other problems, most antiaircraft missiles (particularly air-to-air) rely on flight surfaces designed for maneuvering in the denser air at lower altitudes and become poor at tracking at SR-71 flight altitudes. Most missiles couldn't win in a tail chase either. And they weren't designed to deal with the high net velocity of closing head-on (more similar to those for ABM defenses). The low radar cross section ma

          • With modern guidance, though, hitting a hypersonic vehicle with limited maneuvering capabilities head-on should be significantly easier, though. (Its comparative fragility and high relative speed isn't going to make it any more resilient to a cloud of small tungsten balls either.)
    • i figured it was killed because spy satellites were faster, cheaper, and safer to operate?

      kinda like how subs supplanted ICBM's.

    • Meanwhile, there were programmes hungry for its budget

      Lol! Like its direct replacement??

    • It does not have VTOL, it does not have a Gatling Laser. Billions spent at the DOD, with nothing show for it. Damn, now I'm starting to figit!
  • by DNS-and-BIND ( 461968 ) on Wednesday January 17, 2018 @05:11AM (#55944575) Homepage

    The SR-71 was developed (like all military programs) to serve a specific need: the Communist nations were closed off to the world and their secret police did an enthusiastic and effective job catching traitors. America was simply cut off from intelligence on the ground. Hence, the super-fast spy plane was developed, capable of violating borders guaranteed by international law, racing in to take photos, and racing back out again before the outraged victim country could defend itself. Moreover this was when the space program was in its infancy, satellite photography was unreliable and took a long time from photo to print. There's simply no need today for a spy plane like this.

    The Communists never developed a similar plane because if they wanted intelligence, they just sent out a man from their embassy with a camera and a pencil. There was also no shortage of Americans who either believed in Communism or who were easily bought off. At one point, the head of the FBI's counterintelligence agency was a foreign spy.

    • The SR-71 was developed (like all military programs) to serve a specific need: the Communist nations were closed off to the world and their secret police did an enthusiastic and effective job catching traitors. America was simply cut off from intelligence on the ground. Hence, the super-fast spy plane was developed, capable of violating borders guaranteed by international law, racing in to take photos, and racing back out again before the outraged victim country could defend itself. Moreover this was when the space program was in its infancy, satellite photography was unreliable and took a long time from photo to print. There's simply no need today for a spy plane like this.

      Or, to put it more succinctly, to do the same job as the U2,but while travelling fast enough not to get shot down by a Soviet missile.

      I agree with you though, given state of the art in space-based imagery, I don't really see a need for this - certainly not at the cost it is likely to carry.,

      • by Viol8 ( 599362 ) on Wednesday January 17, 2018 @05:47AM (#55944687) Homepage

        With anti-satellite weapons as demonstrated by china a few years back a threat, possibly they're thinking that the days of LEO spy satellites may be numbered in a war scenario.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Flexibility.

        Satellites have known orbits and are easily predicted and even countered. They are basically like security cameras. They can easily be dealt with in one way or another, either by only letting them see what you want them to see, or if what you want to hide is on such a scale it can't really be hidden, simply blind or destroy them.

        Spy planes are more like a patrol. They show up unpredictably with short notice, are a lot more manoeuvrable and on the whole quite a bit more difficult to deal with.

    • Moreover this was when the space program was in its infancy, satellite photography was unreliable and took a long time from photo to print. There's simply no need today for a spy plane like this.

      What good is your satellite ground station, mister anderson, without any satellites? Nations have been developing satellite-to-satellite weapons. If your spy satellites are getting taken out, then it's back to drones and planes.

  • by wisebabo ( 638845 ) on Wednesday January 17, 2018 @06:14AM (#55944779) Journal

    ... whatever happened or is happening with the Lockheedâ(TM)s nuclear fusion project?

    For those of you who didnâ(TM)t hear, 3 years ago (2014) they claimed theyâ(TM)d be able to make a nuclear fusion power plant capable of fitting in a box car/shipping container IN FIVE YEARS. I presume they mean a power plant that generates substantially more amount of electricity than it requires (Iâ(TM)ve heard that you can âoeeasilyâ make nuclear fusion happen, getting more energy out than in is the trick).

    https://lppfusion.com/lockheed... [lppfusion.com]

    Anyway whatever happened to this game changing (civilization changing?) technology? The only reason why I didnâ(TM)t dismiss it out of hand was because it was supposedly being developed by their âoeSkunk Worksâ, makers of the F-117, SR-71 amongst other things.

    So where is it?

  • SR-71 was cool. SR -72 is a flying blob.

  • If you take an interest in this sort of thing, there are glimpses of technologies that have been under development since the 1980s that are beyond even what is hinted at here.

    For example, there is plenty of evidence and acknowledged testing to show that we have working examples of things like Pulse Wave Detonation Engines, or Pulse Detonation Engines. These leave very characteristic contrails in the sky, which look like a chain of doughnuts connected by a thin central line. We know the technology has bee
    • by ledow ( 319597 )

      I'm kinda with you, kinda not.

      Pretty sure that they have some advanced stuff, which they wouldn't be bragging about if they had any clue about military intelligence.

      But I doubt they have anything particularly amazing. The 60's was an era of spacecraft and firsts, compared to the best spyplane the Apollo launch moved much faster (escape velocity is Mach 33?). What was happening in public was infinitely more impressive than what was happening behind closed doors.

      However, I'm sure they have some neat stuff.

      B

  • So the plane is supposed to be flying by 2030 - that's twelve years away. Yet they also say,

    "We couldnâ(TM)t have made the engine itselfâ"it would have melted down into slag if we had tried to produce it five years ago,â Oâ(TM)Banion said. âoeBut 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.â The aircraft is also agil

  • The first pilot is a young dude named Speed Racer, and he calls his dad "Pops."
  • The Chinese version will be available in 2032, they'll just steal the plans and paint a red star on it.

  • So beautiful! Just look at those curves!!

    I wish the 72 was as sexy. Looks too boxy to get my juices flowing.

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