Tag Archives: Skunk Works

Skunk Works Celebrates 75th Anniversary of Innovation and Secrecy

Lockheed Advanced Development Program Subverted Normal Channels On The Way to Innovation.

The Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the F-104 Starfighter, the U-2 spy plane, the SR-71 Blackbird and the D-21 supersonic drone, the F-117 Stealth Jet, the still secretive SR-72. No one outside of its very opaque walls knows how many projects the secretive Lockheed “Skunk Works” have developed, and how many flops they’ve had. But everyone in defense and aerospace knows the Lockheed Skunk Works broke barriers in innovation and defense acquisition that changed the world and toppled superpowers. It likely continues to do so today, behind a thick veil of secrecy.

Founded in the mid 1940s at the height of WWII when defense acquisitions needed to be fast-tracked to remain ahead of Axis adversaries, especially Germany and their secret weapons program headquartered at Peenemunde, Lockheed’s Skunk Works was tasked with developing ground-breaking aerospace technology and weapons systems.

The Skunk Works’ initial projects vaulted the U.S. into the jet age with the first operational, production jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, first flown on January 8, 1944, too late to effectively influence WWII. Following the P-80 and WWII the U.S. defense industry entered an unprecedented period of innovation and breakthroughs as the Cold War with Russia escalated and China emerged as a growing part of the “Red Menace”.

The Skunk Works’ original founder of record is Kelly Johnson. Johnson, the round-faced, blunt-speaking character who seemed to have aerodynamic engineering in his genetic make-up, went on to make aviation history in more ways than can be able to accurately (and publicly) tabulated. Perhaps more so than the engineers of the early NASA space programs, Kelly Johnson made being an engineer cool. Johnson was awarded an unprecedented two Collier Trophies, an annual award presented by the U.S. National Aeronautic Association for the person who made the most significant contribution to aerospace. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Successor to the Skunk Works throne, colleague and later President Ben Rich, said in his book, “Skunk Works” that Kelly Johnson was, “The toughest boss west of the Mississippi, or east of it too, suffered fools for less than seven seconds, and accumulated as many detractors as admirers at the Pentagon and among Air Force commanders.”

Lockheed Skunk Works founder Kelly Johnson (left) and successor Ben Rich (right). (Photos: Lockheed Martin)

While the Skunk Works is most famous for the “black projects” that went on to become famous technology breakthroughs like the U-2 spy plane, SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 stealth fighter, what may have been the single largest innovation with the Skunk Works was their ability to, in some cases, subvert the normal convoluted and lethargic acquisition projects the Department of Defense is infamous for.

The Skunk Works developed the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter in complete secrecy for less money and in less time than it took Ford Motor Company to develop its Ford Taurus line of cars. Observers in the former Soviet Union and in the U.S. defense and intelligence community maintain the F-117 and the breakthrough in “stealth”, or low radar observability, was a significant factor in the demise of the Soviet Union since their massive defensive dependence on an integrated air defense system had been rendered largely ineffective by stealth.

The Lockheed Skunk Works revolutionized aerial combat with the introduction of effective low-observable technology or “stealth” as originally demonstrated on the top secret “Have Blue” prototype. (Photos: Lockheed Martin)

Today the Skunk Works continues as a more recognized, less shadowy organization in brand identity but not in projects. Those remain highly classified.

While no one in the public domain knows what the Skunk Works is working on now, the one thing that is certain is they are working on something. A host of projects has been discussed by the U.S. Air Force and Lockheed that include hypersonic remotely piloted and manned strike and reconnaissance platforms.

Still flying in operational use today, the Lockheed U-2 long-range, high altitude reconnaissance plane developed by the Lockheed Skunk Works. While every corner of the flight envelope is tricky to fly in the U-2, managing the landing is particularly difficult. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist)

In 2017 Aviation Week magazine wrote that, “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.”

In a rare and stunning reveal in late 2017 at the Society of Aerospace Engineers Exhibition, Lockheed’s Executive Vice President of Aeronautics, Orlando Carvalho, told media about a new “SR-72 program”: “Although I can’t go into specifics, let us just say the Skunk Works team in Palmdale, California, is doubling down on our commitment to speed.” Carvalho told Aviation Week, “Hypersonics is like stealth. It is a disruptive technology and will enable various platforms to operate at two to three times the speed of the Blackbird… Security classification guidance will only allow us to say the speed is greater than Mach 5.”

Based on their remarkable 75-year history two things we do know about the Skunk Works’ current projects are; they are certainly working on something, and, it will defy our imaginations.

The author’s collection of artifacts from the Lockheed Skunk Works. Lockheed has trademarked the name “Skunk Works” and the attendant skunk logo. (Photos: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

Well Before The SR-72 Was Conceived, The Iconic SR-71 Blackbird Proved “Speed Is The Real Stealth”

The SR-71 Blackbird was so fast it outran every missile shoot against it and every interceptor scrambled to intercept it.

The aviation “side” of the Web went abuzz following the rumor that an SR-72 prototype was spotted performing flight tests at the U.S. Air Force’s Plant 42 at Palmdale, California.

Back in 2013, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, the legendary division that designed airplanes which represented a giant leap for their times such as the F-104, the U-2, the Blackbird family or the F-117A stealth fighter jet, reveled the existence of a project for a Hypersonic strike aircraft dubbed SR-72.

This graphic is the U.S. Air Force’s first graphic of the SR-72. All the previous concept images were relased by Lockheed Martin.

The SR-72 is an unmanned hypersonic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike platform designed for Mach 6.

Based on the concept images released by the U.S. Air Force (the first official one can be found above) is coherent with the most recent hypersonic designs and it is quite similar to at least one of the configurations studied since the early ’60s for an SR-71 Blackbird replacement.

Anyway, regardless to whether an SR-72 prototype has already started flight testing somewhere between California and Nevada, the hypersonic strike aircraft will be able to fly about twice as fast as its predecessor, the iconic Mach 3 SR-71 Blackbird, one of the fastest planes ever flown operationally.

The first concept artwork of the SR-72 released by Lockheed Martin in 2013.

The Blackbird was the first aircraft to feature stealth capabilities: a special paint that contained iron ferrites and absorbed radar energy instead of returning it to the sender was used for SR-71’s wings, tail and fuselage. The reduced RCS (Radar Cross Section) made any reaction to an SR-71 overflight almost useless: the aircraft was so fast that once the radar detected it, the SAM battery’s guidance system was not able to compute the right parameters for a successful kill. Moreover, the range and bearing of the SR-71 was also denied to the enemy by jamming the radars with the use of the sophisticated electronic countermeasures (ECM) that equipped by the Blackbird.

However, in spite of its radar-evading features, what made the SR-71 almost impossible to intercept, were its incredible flight characteristics: it was able to fly at more than 3.5 Mach at 88,000 feet. The aircraft could climb higher than that and according to some sources the Blackbird could reach 120,000 feet and above. At that altitude, Soviet SAMs would have been unable to maneuver to hit an SR-71: the air is so thin that any maneuvering capability of a missile is practically nonexistent, as explained by the former Blackbird pilot Col. Richard H. Graham in his book “SR-71 The Complete Illustrated History of THE BLACKBIRD The World’s Highest , Fastest Plane.

In 2012 a DARPA statement stated that America was gradually losing the “strategic advantage” that its stealth warplanes had long provided, as other countries’ stealth and counter-stealth capabilities continued to improve. For this reason, “speed is the new stealth” is a slogan that accompanied the unveiling of the SR-72 in 2013. However, the SR-71’s story is a proof that speed has always been the key to stealth.

Indeed, throughout its career, that came to an end on Oct. 9, 1999, no SR-71 was reportedly lost nor damaged due to hostile actions.

Not only did SAMs fail to catch the Blackbird but even the fastest Soviet fighter jets, including the MiG-31 Foxhound, lacked the necessary speed to reach the SR-71.

A Blackbird at night on the ramp at Beale Air Force Base, California.

Here below you can find an excerpt from “MiG Pilot,” a book for Soviet pilot Viktor Belenko, who defected to Japan in a MiG-25 on Dec. 6, 1976, that we have already posted in the past. Here’s what Belenko recounts :

American reconnaissance planes, SR-71s, were prowling off the coast, staying outside Soviet airspace by photographing terrain hundreds of miles inland with side – angle cameras. They taunted and toyed with the MiG-25s sent up to intercept them, scooting up to altitudes the Soviet planes could not reach, and circling leisurely above them or dashing off at speeds the Russians could not match.”

“[The Soviets] had a master plan to intercept an SR-71 by positioning a MiG-25 in front of it and one below it, and when the SR-71 passed they would fire missiles. But it never occurred. Soviet computers were very primitive, and there is no way that mission can be accomplished.”

“First of all, the SR-71 flies too high and too fast. The MiG-25 cannot reach it or catch it. Secondly…the missiles are useless above 27,000 meters [88,000 feet], and as you know, the SR-71 cruises much higher. But even if we could reach it, our missiles lack the velocity to overtake the SR-71 if they are fired in a tail chase. And if they are fired head-on, the guidance systems cannot adjust quickly enough to the high closing speed”.

As the above footage shows, NASA flew the Blackbird as well.

Four SR-71 airplanes operated from NASA Dryden during the 1990s. According to the Agency, two were used for research and two to support Air Force reactivation of the SR-71 for reconnaissance missions. Although the Air Force retired the Blackbirds in 1990, Congress reinstated funding for additional flights several years later. SR-71A (61-7980/NASA 844) arrived at Dryden on Feb. 15, 1990. It was placed into storage until 1992 and served as a research platform until its final flight on Oct. 9, 1999. SR-71A (61-7971/NASA 832) arrived at Dryden on March 19, 1990, but was returned to Air Force inventory as the first aircraft was reactivated in 1995. Along with SR-71A (61-7967), it was flown by NASA crews in support of the Air Force program. SR-71B (61-7956/NASA 831) arrived at Dryden on July 25, 1991, and served as a research platform as well as for crew training and proficiency until October 1997.

Here’s why the U.S. should restart the F-22 Raptor production line instead of developing a sixth generation fighter

With some tweaks the F-22 Raptor can maintain the edge over the future fighters the U.S. adversaries are developing.

The development of a sixth generation fighter should not be a top priority for the U.S Air Force given that, according to Rob Weiss, executive vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin’s legendary Skunk Works division, regular updates to the F-22 and F-35 would keep the edge of the current U.S. stealth fighters over China’s and Russia’s future fifth generation warplanes.

Weiss recently told to DefenseOne.com, that these aircraft already enable the U.S. to have a distinct advantage over the capabilities its adversaries are developing and that a replacement for today’s F-22 and F-35 fighter jets isn’t needed anytime soon: “We’ve done this analysis for more than a decade now and it’s clear that the fifth-generation F-22s and F-35s are very capable versus a threat and substantially more capable than any fourth-generation airplane. There’s, in our view, little point in developing a new airplane that doesn’t do anything more than what you can do as you modernize F-22s and F-35s.”

Instead the Pentagon should invest in developing “truly game-changing technologies and capabilities” that will be part of the future sixth-generation fighter whose development, added Weiss, should start in a decade or more from now.

On the contrary, the U.S. Air Force is already procuring the ultimate future fighter that will eventually replace the Raptor under the so-called Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program.

But, assuming that a new fighter would require no less than twenty years to be developed, restarting the F-22 production line would be for sure a more cost-effective move for the service.

The procurement of additional Raptors would also make the JSF more capable, given that as we have already explained, the Air Force said that without the support of a dedicated air superiority fighter such as the F-22, the F-35 would be irrelevant.

Furthermore reopening the Raptor production would give the chance to fix the few shortcomings the aircraft has.

For instance, thrust vectoring (TV) wasn’t a strictly needed feature since it could bring some stealthy trade-offs to the airframe of an aircraft built to achieve most of his kills silently. Moreover, although during within visual range (WVR) engagements TV can be very useful to put the F-22 in the proper position to score a kill, it requires an appropriate use to prevent the Raptor from losing energy and becoming very vulnerable.

Eventually a helmet-mounted display (HMD), which the aircraft still lacks, coupled with the recently integrated AIM-9X missile, could equally turn the F-22 into a lethal dogfighter, given that the HMD would enable the pilot to exploit the full High Off-Boresight (HOBS) capabilities of the weapon.

Fixing the F-22 shortcomings and then restarting its production line would be the best solution for the U.S. Air Force also according to Jamie Hunter, editor of Combat Aircraft Monthly, who wrote on the December 2015 issue of the magazine: “How about a risk-reduced approach for NGAD? Take the almost perfect Raptor and put it back into production, albeit this time with the tweaks that make it truly the best fighter ever can be. That approach may just help mitigate against the early cost over – runs and delays – and provide capability faster and when it’s needed.”

F-22 Vs Sixth Generation fighter

Image credit: Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard / U.S. Air Force

[Photo] SR-71 Blackbird and chase car

Here is a unusual shot of the legendary SR-71 Blackbird

This image was recently released by Beale Air Force Base official FB page.

It was taken years ago, when the SR-71 was still in service and shows a Blackbird taxing behind a Chevy car (a follow me, more than a standard “chase car” like those supporting the U-2 Dragon Lady and the RQ-4 Global Hawk).

The Mach 3+ black plane is barely visible, but the scene is both unusual and stunning.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force photo by John Schwab

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Lockheed Martin releases new High Speed Strike Weapon hypersonic missile concept image

Last week Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works acknowledged the existence of an SR-71 Blackbird, capable to fly at hypersonic speed with a dual ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) and Strike capability, dubbed SR-72.

In accordance with the new slogan “speed is the new stealth”, Skunk Works is studying high Mach systems that would give platform equipped with these weapons the capability to strike heavily defended targets, quickly and undetected.

Among LM’s hypersonic programs focusing on both “expendable missiles” and “reusable aircraft”, the High Speed Strike Weapon (HSSW), “a hypersonic missile concept suitable for future bomber and fighter aircraft” was not a secret.

However, there was only one HSSW concept image available.

Until Lockheed Martin released the one you can see on this post that is a bit more detailed (if any detail can be gathered from a rendering) than any previous one.

Image credit: Lockheed Martin

Enhanced by Zemanta