“Heritage Today - ISR and Innovation,” a YouTube video put out by the U.S. Air Force’s Profession of Arms Center of Excellence (PACE), has provided glimpses into several of the most interesting—and carefully guarded—planes currently under development.
The clip, slightly under three minutes in length, alludes to past attempts at intelligence gathering from the air, from Civil War balloons and World War I biplanes to the SR-71 Blackbird. As well as showcasing past innovations, the video serves as a tribute to the men and women in uniform operating them. It has been scrutinized more carefully, though, for its depictions of, and references to, the Air Force’s newest planes.
“The days of balloons and biplanes,” the video narrates, “have been replaced by white bats,” showing an aerial outline view of the RQ-180, nicknamed the “Great White Bat.” Interestingly, the video’s depiction of the RQ-180 appears not to match a similar view of the aircraft filmed over California near Edwards Air Force Base in late 2020. This has prompted suspicions that the aircraft seen in the PACE video is not the RQ-180’s final design, but possibly a prototype design intended for public viewing.
The video’s less explicit, and more interesting, depictions include the X-37 “Orbital Test Vehicle,” appearing solely as a graphic on a screen at around the 2:27 mark. A few seconds later, at 2:34, a more explicit hangar shot is shown, revealing the outline of the Lockheed Martin SR-72 “Son of Blackbird,” the long-awaited successor to the Lockheed SR-71.
While the clip most likely does not depict a real SR-72, but a computer’s reproduction of one, the secretive plane’s inclusion is a positive sign that it is inching towards release. Since 2018, Lockheed Martin executives have claimed that the aircraft’s first flight could take place in the early 2020s, with a date of 2025 commonly cited.
The SR-72’s mission is intended to succeed the SR-71’s; both aircraft are intended to conduct reconnaissance, surveillance, and potentially military strikes. The plane’s capabilities have also been kept quiet, but it is known that it was designed to travel at Mach 6, nearly double the speed of the original SR-71—a plane that officially remains the fastest manned aircraft to date. Unlike its predecessor aircraft, though, the SR-72 is unmanned.
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.