Boeing, the aerospace industry leader, has revealed plans to develop technologies for a potential new “hypersonic” spy plane, capable of reaching speeds five times that of sound. However, Boeing has cautioned that the realization of such a Mach-5 spy plane may still be a decade or two away. Despite decades of investment and extensive research in hypersonic technologies, the aerospace sector continues to face challenges in creating super-fast aircraft.
At an industry conference in Florida in mid-January 2018, Boeing scientist Kevin Bowcutt unveiled the company’s latest efforts in hypersonics. He explained, “We explored the most cost-effective approach to creating a reusable hypersonic demonstrator vehicle,” as reported by Aerospace Daily, a trade publication. “We conducted our own independent research on this matter.”
It’s important to note that the demonstrator vehicle, which is not intended for regular use, is currently in the conceptual phase, according to Boeing spokesperson Brianna Jackson. Jackson clarified, “Boeing is not actively developing a hypersonic airplane at this time. However, we are conducting various studies on hypersonic technology. Several technological advancements will be required before an actual aircraft becomes feasible.”
Despite this, Boeing has taken steps to envision a potential Mach-5 spy plane, even creating visual representations. Bowcutt mentioned that in experimental form, the wedge-shaped vehicle would be approximately the size of an F-16 fighter jet, which is about 50 feet in length from nose to tail. An operational version of the same vehicle would be significantly larger, comparable in size to America’s last high-speed spy plane, the 107-foot-long SR-71 Blackbird, which was manufactured by Lockheed Martin.
The SR-71, equipped with twin engines and capable of flying faster than Mach 3, conducted reconnaissance missions for the U.S. Air Force and CIA from 1964 to 1998. Although satellites and stealthy drones eventually replaced the costly and complex-to-maintain Blackbirds, they never fully replicated the plane’s capabilities.
As rivals of the United States enhanced their defenses against stealthy aircraft, the Pentagon began considering a return to fast spy planes reminiscent of the Cold War era, ones that could simply outpace any threats. In 2013, Lockheed introduced its concept for a Mach-6 successor to the SR-71, dubbed the SR-72. The company claimed, “The aircraft would be so fast, an adversary would have no time to react or hide.”
Lockheed, with encouragement from the Pentagon and potential support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has been working on the SR-72 since at least the 2013 announcement. DARPA did not respond to inquiries before the deadline for this story.
In parallel, the Defense Department and aerospace companies have been developing hypersonic missiles and gliders. Space planes like Boeing’s X-37B are launched atop rockets, reach orbit, and eventually land like conventional aircraft, achieving hypersonic speeds at various stages of their flight profiles.
However, experts in government and industry acknowledge the formidable challenge of designing a reliable, cost-effective, and reusable hypersonic vehicle specifically for atmospheric flight. Mach-5 planes must endure extreme temperatures. Additionally, the engines required for efficient acceleration to hypersonic speeds differ fundamentally from those needed to sustain super-fast flight over long distances.
Jackson emphasized, “The highly integrated nature of air-breathing hypersonic vehicles make them very difficult to properly design, and extreme heating from air friction requires hypersonic vehicles be made of very high-temperature materials and structures that are both light and durable.” She added, “Integrating the engines and airframe in a manner that achieves high performance across a very large operating envelope exacerbates the design challenge.”
There have been signs of progress, however. In 2017, the trade publication Aviation Week reported the sighting of a small-scale SR-72 prototype flying over a Lockheed facility in California. At the same conference where Bowcutt unveiled Boeing’s new hypersonics endeavor, Lockheed’s vice president Jack O’Banion hinted that the SR-72 might already be in flight in some form while discussing advancements in digital design processes.
Lockheed chose not to address The Daily Beast’s specific questions regarding the SR-72. Spokeswoman Melissa Dalton stated, “A reusable hypersonic system is a long-term solution that will be made possible by the pioneering work we are doing today.” In its 2013 announcement, the company projected that the SR-72 could become operational by 2030.
Jackson stated that Boeing anticipates a similar timeline for the potential development of any hypersonic spy plane. She remarked, “While it would be premature to speculate precisely when hypersonic flight will be a reality, it is fair to say that it could be feasible looking 10 to 20 years into the future.”