The SR-72 “Son of Blackbird” has not yet seen the light of day—not in public, at least. Even so, it is slated to become one of the most impressive planes of the twenty-first century, able to travel at “hypersonic” speeds exceeding Mach 5.0. A view of the plane—likely a computer animation—was included in an Air Force tribute video in early November, showing that its sleek outline closely resembled its predecessor aircraft, the SR-71 Blackbird.
Comparisons between the two planes are apt. The first Blackbird, clearly the namesake of the second, was one of the U.S. Air Force’s most effective planes throughout its thirty-year operational history and maintains the world’s flight airspeed record to this day. But the Blackbird was ultimately retired by the Air Force in 1990, and then a second time in 1998, over cost issues and the belief that other parts of the U.S. intelligence arsenal—primarily the advent of drones and spy satellites—could make up for the Blackbird’s mission without the danger of losing any personnel on dangerous espionage missions. As impressive as the SR-72 is shaping up to be, it begs the question: if the U.S. Air Force did not need the SR-71 in 1998, why does it need the SR-72 today?
The simplest answer to this question is geopolitics. In 1990, the Blackbird’s mission was declining in relevance. The Berlin Wall had fallen, the Soviet Union was teetering, and the need for Blackbird missions against American adversaries was murky. In the current era, however, the relationship between Russia and the United States continues to worsen, and Washington has also needed to confront a rising China. From a national security standpoint, some level of espionage against both Moscow and Beijing is of the utmost importance.
That espionage can—to some extent—be provided by spy satellites, but spy satellites continue to have certain limitations restricting their effectiveness. The satellites often need twenty-four hours to reach the proper place in orbit to take pictures below; once there, they can only linger on a particular place for around a minute before needing to move on, potentially repeating the twenty-four-hour loop. Even now, the satellites’ locations are often available online; in the event of a conflict, they would be quickly targeted by anti-satellite missiles, which both Russia and China have successfully developed.
The combination of satellites’ shortcomings and rising threats from Eurasia—including a high-profile November test of a Chinese hypersonic missile—has ruffled U.S. feathers and pushed it to continue development on a successor to the Blackbird. And, while the plane will no doubt be put into dangerous situations in the years to come, it is unmanned, keeping U.S. servicemembers’ lives safe.
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.
Image: Lockheed Martin