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Futuristic spy plane called game-changer

| Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, 5:54 p.m.
An artist's rendering of Lockheed Martin's planned SR-72 twin-engine jet aircraft lacks apparent windows or a pilot bubble, suggesting reliance on a video feed for visual flight and perhaps the capacity for unmanned flight.

WASHINGTON — Lockheed Martin Corp. discussed plans on Friday for a hypersonic spy plane that could fly at Mach 6, twice as fast as its famed SR-71 Blackbird, and said a missile demonstrating the new technology could fly as early as 2018.

Brad Leland, the Lockheed engineer who has headed the seven-year research effort, said the new aircraft, dubbed the SR-72, was designed using off-the-shelf materials to keep it affordable in the tough budget environment.

He said the plane offers game-changing capabilities to the military — and a twin-engine demonstrator jet that could reach any target in an hour could be developed for under $1 billion in five to six years.

“Hypersonic is the new stealth,” Leland told Reuters in an interview. “Your adversaries cannot hide or move their critical assets. They will be found. That becomes a game-changer.”

The aircraft would travel three times as fast as current fighter jets, which can reach speeds of Mach 2, twice the speed of sound, and it could be outfitted with light weapons to strike targets.

Aviation Week first reported Lockheed's work on the project earlier on Friday in a cover article titled “Son of Blackbird.” Lockheed developed the supersonic SR-71 Blackbird, a long-range manned spy plane, 50 years ago. A few of those planes remained in service until 1999.

Details of the new hypersonic spy plane project emerged days after Lockheed, the Pentagon's biggest supplier, teamed up with No. 2 supplier Boeing Co. to develop a bid for the Pentagon's new long-range bomber.

Lockheed, Boeing and other big weapons makers are pressing the Pentagon to continue funding aircraft development programs despite big cuts in military spending. They argue that a retreat from such projects could undercut U.S. military superiority in years to come.

Leland, who works for Lockheed's Skunk Works advanced development arm, said missiles based on the new technology could be ready for operational use in 2020, at a cost only slightly more than the current Tomahawk or JASSM missiles.

Lockheed declined to say how much it had invested in the SR-72 project to date, or what the airplane might cost if it is ever built. But it said it had tried to keep the tight budget environment in mind while working on the project.

“What we are doing is defining a missile that would have a small incremental cost to go at hypersonic speed,” Leland said. He said about 20 Lockheed employees had worked on the project.

One key factor in keeping the project affordable was a decision to limit speed to Mach 6, rather than reaching for higher speeds that would require more expensive materials such as those used on the space shuttle, Leland said.

He said top Pentagon officials had been briefed on the program's progress and they were very interested in the technology as a possible way to counter work by potential adversaries on technologies that could detect stealth aircraft.

He said the company and its partners had developed and tested key components of the proposed aircraft using their own internal research funding, but the program needed additional funds to move ahead with larger-scale demonstrations of the technologies involved.

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