Much debate remains on whether the Lockheed Martin SR-72, affectionately known as the "Son of the Blackbird," is actually real. It reportedly could be making an appearance in the upcoming film Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to the 1986 film Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise.
While there is no doubt that the aircraft may be in the production stage, whether it is ready to take to the skies is the other question. Another question is what its actual role could be in the U.S. military, but more on that in a moment.
SR-72 Darkstar: What We Know, Maybe
The SR-72 Darkstar has been reported to feature a propulsion system that is centered on a turbine-based combined cycle, which merges a modified production fighter turbine engine with a dual-mode ramjet – also called a scramjet. This enables the aircraft to accelerate from a standing start to Mach 6 – double that of the record-setting SR-71 Blackbird.
With such speed, the Darkstar could reach any destination in the world in record time. Moreover, the platform would be capable of carrying weapons that could target remote parts of the world from the very edge of space. While it has been suggested the aircraft would be a successor to the SR-71 Blackbird and be used in an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) role, its speed would make for an extremely capable bomber, depending of course on a number of different factors.
As far back as 2013, discussions of the SR-72 Darkstar's capabilities have made the rounds in the media, while the fact that it was designed utilizing off-the-shelf materials has kept it affordable in this era of tight budget constraints.
More importantly, while much has been made of the stealth capabilities of the B-2 Spirit, as well as more recent platforms including the still-in-the-works B-21 Raider – not to mention the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter – speed could be far more important.
It is true that you can't shoot down what you can't see, but advanced radar systems and anti-aircraft platforms such as the Russian-built S-400 Triumf have shown that stealth may be good, but speed could be better, especially if the S-400 or new S-500 has a shot at killing a stealth bomber in combat, as some experts have claimed. Simply put, hypersonic speed isn't just the "new stealth" it might be better than stealth.
However, for now, it seems that stealth could have an advantage in that Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works, the company's advanced weapons development arm, have been quite stealthy themselves on what has been said or even reported on when it comes to the SR-72. Information has only trickled out over the years, and it was only in 2018 that an unmanned subscale version was observed to be flying near the United States Air Force's Plant at Palmdale, where Skunk Works happens to have its headquarters.
The Questions That Won't Go Away
There are still numerous unanswered questions, including that the development of hypersonic missiles could make a new bomber potentially obsolete. However, one suggestion is that such a fast and high flying bomber loaded with hypersonic missiles would be nearly impossible to counter.
What might not be so speedy with the SR-72 Darkstar is the time it takes to develop the aircraft. While it certainly would be built on past aircraft, including the SR-71, achieving everything that the military has demanded could require time – including developing the material to construct a full-sized version.
Budget has also been a consideration, and some have argued a stealth UAV could perform many of the ISR missions, while the U.S. Air Force is still focused on getting the B-21 Raider into service.
All this could explain why more hasn't been heard about the SR-72, but that doesn't mean it isn't still coming. It could just be in a stealth mode, for now, so to speak.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.