No harm in dreaming

This first appeared as a Comment in the 12 November issue of Flight International

Lockheed Martin seems to have revived a long-dormant enthusiasm for aerospace gadgetry with the unveiling of the hypersonic SR-72 concept.
The aviation media – sensing record web traffic –went big on the story. And reports of the SR-72 spread like wildfire in the mainstream and technology press. The appeal of such an announcement is understandable. The SR-72 concept proposes a technological ­marvel. No operational aircraft since Lockheed’s venerable SR-71 Blackbird – retired for good since 1999 – has dared approach its top speed of Mach 3.2.
Lockheed now proposes to nearly double the speed of the SR-71, using a newly-invented and proprietary technique that packages a cost-saving, off-the-shelf ­turbine engine with a ramjet. Screaming overhead at Mach 6.0, the SR-72 turns the chapter on four decades of stealth technology by simply flying faster and higher than anything that could catch it.
The inevitable ‘but’ in this story is the sad truth that the SR-72 does not exist and most likely never will.
The popular reaction to the story seemed at least partly inspired by the misperception that Lockheed was somehow committing to develop a new product, in the same way that Dassault launched the Falcon 5X business jet in Las Vegas last month.
But – that word again – Lockheed’s Skunk Works ­division is clear that it has made no such commitment. It has completed component level testing. The next step requires a series of complex and expensive full-scale engine tests.
In the commercial market, a company could decide independently to risk investing in a revolutionary new product. A defence company, however, faces a different equation on risk and reward. There is only one buyer in the world to whom Lockheed would be allowed to sell a M6.0 hypersonic spy aircraft: the US Department of Defense. That customer has expressed no clear interest in spending the hundreds of millions of dollars required to develop such a capability. Unless the DoD changes course, the SR-72 stops here.
That doesn’t alter the hidden message in the public’s overwhelming reaction. There was a time not so long ago when the aerospace industry commanded the imagination and breathless expectation of the general public.
Those days appeared to have passed, but the SR-72 shows the public’s love for revolutionary aerospace technology is still alive.

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