The Media is Full of Speculation, But What Do We Know and What Can We Predict?
One of 2017’s biggest defense and aviation stories is the anonymous sighting by a “handful of witnesses” of the landing of a mysterious, unidentified new aircraft at U.S. Air Force Plant 42 Production Flight Test Facility in Palmdale California. What was it?
Aviation Week reporter Guy Norris scooped the story but was guarded in his reporting of sources. On September 27, 2017 Norris wrote:
“According to information provided to Aviation Week, one such technology demonstrator, believed to be an unmanned subscale aircraft, was observed flying into the U.S. Air Force’s Plant 42 at Palmdale, where Skunk Works is headquartered. The vehicle, which was noted landing in the early hours at an unspecified date in late July, was seen with two T-38 escorts. Lockheed Martin declined to comment directly on the sighting.”
Nearly every article quoting Norris’ story suggests that, what the unnamed witnesses saw is related to a new global intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) gathering asset. Likely a new hypersonic remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) that could be a sub-scale developmental testbed for a planned manned version. While it is a significant leap to extrapolate this sighting to a full-scale manned platform, the silence from Lockheed Martin about the incident is deafening. Had the sighting been nothing, they would have said it was nothing.
It isn’t much of a leap to suggest that any proposed, new manned aircraft, colloquially referred to in most media as the “SR-72” would have global range, fly in excess of Mach 6, be low-observable and potentially have strike capability. This is one list of requirements for an SR-71 follow-on.
When analyzing the role of a possible new strategic reconnaissance/strike asset, manned and unmanned, a few assumptions can reasonably be made. The mission of a high-speed reconnaissance (and possibly even strike) platform likely includes four unique capabilities for the strategic ISR and global strike mission:
1. It is very low observable. The relevance and quality of any intelligence collected is degraded substantially if the adversary knows it has been collected. A stealthy, ultra-high-speed intelligence gathering and strike asset could obtain signals, atmospheric and image intelligence across several spectrums potentially without detection. This improves the actionable relevance of the intelligence since the adversary does not know their operational security has been compromised.
2. It is timely. An ultra-high speed (some reports suggest Mach 6+) asset could be over the reconnaissance target area quickly and provide either real-time intelligence via secure datalink or be back on the ground quickly for retrieval and analysis of intelligence gathered over the target and stored onboard the asset.
3. It is difficult to intercept if detected. One of the primary defensive capabilities of the Mach 3+ SR-71 was its speed and altitude performance. It could outrun and out-climb most missiles and interceptor aircraft. But advances in detection, tactics, aircraft, aircraft weapons and surface to air missiles and even soon-to-be fielded focused energy beam weapons (as from the Chinese) provide a requirement for a faster, higher flying and lower observable platform.
4. It provides on-board decision-making capability in the manned configuration. While a manned asset exposes a flight crew to the risks associated with overflight it also keeps the human decision-making capability inside the mission loop. While this may not be critical in the ISR role, it may be in the strategic strike role. Once strategic strike platforms such as ICBMs and cruise missiles are committed to the attack they can be difficult to re-task or abort, especially in a dynamic tactical environment. A manned strategic strike asset with ultra-high-speed and global range retains a human in the decision loop. This is attractive both empirically and morally.
Having identified these four potential unique capabilities to a presumptive “SR-72” type asset it is appropriate to examine the possible regions and roles the asset would be employed in. Given the current and near-future strategic situation these four global missions may be part of the SR-72s tasking:
1. North Korea. The crisis has reached a near flashpoint with Pyongyang’s repeated missile and nuclear proliferation and continued adversarial rhetoric. Accurate and timely monitoring of North Korea’s actual testing activity and developmental capabilities is critical to managing the U.S. response in the crisis. This includes preventing the crisis from becoming an armed conflict. A strategic reconnaissance asset that is stealthy, fast and field-able would bolster the U.S. position in intelligence gathering, especially in this dynamic environment. A similar low observable, hypersonic strike asset would also be critical in maintaining our first strike capability should the rapidly evolving situation warrant it.
2. Iran. With potential changes in the U.S. doctrine and Iran’s nuclear policy maintaining real-time intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program is critical. The political environment surrounding Iran, and its attendant diplomatic ramifications, dictate that the best intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program and any weapons development be gathered covertly and updated in a timely manner. While orbital reconnaissance assets can provide excellent imaging across the entire spectrum from visible to infra-red to electronic emissions a reconnaissance satellite cannot collect atmospheric samples that are key to detecting nuclear testing. Also, re-tasking spy satellites not already in position with orbits over key targets makes a more dynamic, high-speed, low-observable atmospheric reconnaissance platform desirable.
3. Syria. The tenuous relationship with Russia in the Syrian conflict has been well-managed to date, but the potential for serious incidents still exists. Intelligence gathered covertly in real or near real-time about both Syrian and Russian activities in the region can help manage each participants’ agendas while lowering the risk of fratricide and other accidental conflict. It can also provide exclusive intelligence to the United States unavailable to other participating nations, providing a strategic intelligence advantage in the conflict.
4. The emerging global theater. The United States enjoys a geographic separation from the major Asian, African and Middle Eastern conflict areas. The geographic separation from conflict zones afforded by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans has been a significant reason for the U.S. ability to maintain security and prevent a large-scale conflict on U.S. soil. But this geographical distance from conflict zones also means preemptively managing conflict globally. It requires long reach and high-speed for timely intelligence gathering. A new high-speed, low-observable ISR/strike platform is required to maintain that agenda. This is a persistent requirement within the U.S. arsenal and will remain indefinitely.
Any new strategic reconnaissance and strike asset in development now could still be years from operational fielding, or it may already be in service. Recall that the F-117 Nighthawk was flying in 1981 but not officially revealed until 1988, a span of seven years during which the program remained hidden. While media has changed since the 1980s and it is more difficult to keep a program secret today, the possibility still exists that the program is much farther advanced than publicly revealed.
As early as 1985 a line item appeared in the U.S. defense budget for $85 million USD attributed to a project called “Aurora”. By 1987 that allocation had bloated to over $2.3 billion for the same project. Some reports suggest the U.S. Air Force was working on an SR-71 replacement as early as 1988.
Subsequent reports in credible media like Jane’s Defense and Aviation Week & Space Technology have featured accounts of hearing and seeing unidentified aircraft in the region of the Nellis test ranges.
Another famous sighting happened over the North Sea in November 1991. Scottish petroleum engineer Chris Gibson, who was also serving in the British Royal Observer Corps according to reports, was working on the offshore oil rig Galveston Key. Gibson, an experienced and trained professional aircraft spotter, saw “The shape of a pure isosceles triangle” flying behind a KC-135 Stratotanker refueling aircraft in formation with two F-111s. The aircraft were sighted in the 6A air-to-air refueling zone according to reports. Gibson’s accounting was substantiated by another witness, lasted a significant amount of time, and has been repeatedly analyzed, but never explained.
Trying to organize the sightings and information we have of any possible new hypersonic low-observable reconnaissance/strike aircraft with the mission requirements and global strategic need for aerial intelligence still leaves massive gaps between what we know and what is possible according to accounts, but within this massive gap of the unknown exists plenty of room for a real project that, when we eventually do hear about it, will undoubtedly be one of the most sensational defense and aviation stories of this century.
Top image: Conceptual image of SR-72 with SR-71. Courtesy of Aviation Week & Space Technology
Aurora wasn’t a program, it was the funding for the redesign of the B-2, to add the low level capability.
Excellent report! The Prompt Global Strike (PGS) program is a U.S. effort to develop a system that can deliver a precision-guided conventional weapon airstrike anywhere in the world within one hour. So it would make sense that LM’s Skunk Works would receive funding to develop this type of a Mach 6 aircraft. An SR-72 would be able to hit any target on Earth within that 1 hr window.
The radius of the Earth is approx. 4,000 miles. Speed of sound at 100,000 ft. is approx. 660 mph. So Mach 6 would put the SR-72 travelling at about 3,960 MPH. Round that to 4,000. So 4,000 miles to a target while you’re travelling at 4,000 MPH equals 1 hr. Bingo! You just met the requirements for the PGS program.
Yeah, this is happening, the SR-72, and it will put any target anywhere on Earth at risk even when the plane is launched from inside the borders of CONUS (assume Whiteman AFB). And the plane will be undetectable and untouchable. Not even Russia’s useless S500 could catch/intercept it!
Once again, the U.S. leads the way when it comes to cutting-edge aerospace technology. No nation on Earth even comes close to matching us. I fully approve, and enemies like Iran, Russia, North Korea (and others) had better watch out. Make the U.S. mad and we can come and get you like a boogieman quietly coming out your bedroom closet at night while you’re sleeping. If you’re a bad guy you had better be very, VERY frightened. Yes indeed – we are coming to get you! : )
Radius of the Earth? The SR-72 will fly to the target from the center of planet through layers of soil? :)
4000 miles from Whiteman AFB not even reaching Europe. ;-)
Great article. I guess we will just have to wait and see. It does make me wonder how many experimental aircraft have been developed, built and flown from these top secret bases over the past 20 years.
Reconnaissance these days is done via satellites, and for strikes a hypersonic low-observable missile would do just fine. Also, N.Korea, Iran ? Really ? Both could be handled with tech from a decade or two ago. As for point 4 – also non-issue as US has numerous bases all over the world and has no particular need to launch a recon platform from its soil. Same goes for Syria. All-in-all, looks like someone wants to get some of them sweet taxpayer bucks.
>Reconnaissance these days is done via satellites,
Some of it is, yes. They still provide severe gaps in coverage both tactically and strategically.
If I knew the satellite orbital schedule I wouldn’t conduct activity when one was overhead.
>and for strikes a hypersonic low-observable missile would do just fine.
Something that’s hypersonic ain’t exactly low-observable, if only from the immense IR signature.
> As for point 4 – also non-issue as US has numerous bases all over the
world and has no particular need to launch a recon platform from its
You can’t think of ANY reasons why it would be preferable to launch reconnaissance programs from CONUS or American possessions instead of in foreign countries?
Satellites can’t still take high resolution pictures like full recon planes can. If you use google Earth, and zoom in on Gloogle’s office, you will see why. It was taken by a drone, and quite a few other pictures by planes, and some by satellite.
Satellites are prone to anti sat missiles which our adversaries have already developed and hypersonic missiles cannot do recon. At the start of any major conflict, all these things would be a big time issue.
Excellent report first of all. Yes it’s being built, and the plane will have a strike capability as part of the Prompt Global Strike Program. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it deploy hypersonic missiles too, which are under development (and may already be deployed, but that’s something no one can comment on due to national security reasons. Certainly my lips are sealed). Anyway, take a look at this recent report from AvWeek:
Skunk Works Hints At SR-72 Demonstrator Progress
“However, Weiss hints that work on a combined cycle propulsion system and other key advances needed for a viable hypersonic vehicle are reaching readiness levels sufficient for incorporation into some form of demonstrator. Following critical ground demonstrator tests from 2013 through 2017, Lockheed Martin is believed to be on track to begin development of an optionally piloted flight research vehicle (FRV) starting as early as next year. The FRV is expected to be around the same size as an F-22 and powered by a full-scale, combined cycle engine.”
So yes an SR-72 test vehicle is flying (sub-scale with full-scale soon to come) and it will be unseeable and untouchable by any junk system the enemy might feebly try to deploy against it (think things like the junk S500 system which the U.S. and NATO will be able to defeat as they have S300/400 in Syria, or the too-slow, non-stealthy MiG-31, MiG-41). We will of course fly out of numerous NATO and Asia-ally airbases, and share it’s collected intel and of course have it fully participate in the defense of America’s NATO friends as well as Australia and Israel, Japan and South Korea, others.
As an aside but still in the realm of aerospace advances, given many private ventures coming online (reusable rockets, space tourism, Moon and Mars near-future expeditions by private companies like Amazon and SpaceX, asteroid mining, etc.) this is an exciting time to be alive. Much like Apollo. We (the U.S. and West) are finally on the cusp of true space exploration and commercial space-resource exploitation (everything from asteroids to Helium-3 on the Moon). The U.S. will, as always, lead the way.
America is gonna get rich beyond anyone’s wildest dreams (boy haven’t we seen a world economy driven by U.S. and Western innovation, know-how and entrepreneurial spirit since 1900) and more militarily and economically powerful than ever before. We are coming into a true Golden American Century – meaning lots of GOLD for the U.S. treasury and the American people. Allies will share in this abundance. Enemies (think Russia and rogue nations like North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, others) will be denied any participation or benefit. SR-72 is just a hint of the fantastic technologies and vehicles soon to come!