The classified aircraft, built by the Skunk Works, would be more capable than the RQ-180.
With the U-2S Dragon Lady soon to be retired, there is a big question mark regarding the future Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance aircraft that will replace the almost 70 years old aircraft. For many years, officials and industry hinted at the existence of the highly classified RQ-180 which has never been officially acknowledged, despite being most probably spotted multiple times. Another rumored program is the successor of the Mach 3+ SR-71, which has been dubbed SR-72.
New hints about the existence of a novel highly classified ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) asset were teased by Vago Muradian, the editor-in-chief and host of the Defense & Aerospace Report, in a Defense & Aerospace Air Power Podcast.
“There is another program for a much more capable reconnaissance aircraft..There are articles that have already been delivered, but there are challenges with that program & the program has been rescoped to get to the next block of a/c” ~ Vago Muradian https://t.co/o1JPNOVLGV
— AirPower 2.0 (MIL_STD) (@AirPowerNEW1) November 3, 2023
Muradian mentions the existence of two ISR programs currently, one of those is the Northrop Grumman RQ-180 which apparently has been designated as the successor of the U-2. However, the second program involves a much more capable reconnaissance aircraft designed by Lockheed Martin’s highly secretive Skunk Works division.
[…] there is another program, however, which is for a much more capable reconnaissance aircraft that is the product of the Skunk Works and it is Lockheed Martin aircraft. There are articles that have already been delivered but that there have been challenges with that program. There was some speculation that it had been cancelled: my understanding is that the program was re-scoped because it is that ambitious capability that required a little bit of re-scoping in order to be able to get to the next block of aircraft which I think is interesting.
While there is no confirmation of this, a hypothesis that arises following the description of the “article” points to the rumored SR-71 successor: the SR-72. Lockheed Martin revealed the existence of such a project back in 2013, describing it as an unmanned hypersonic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike platform designed for Mach 6.
The aircraft, unofficially dubbed the “Son of Blackbird“, was teased by the U.S. Air Force in a 2021 video overview of the evolution of the ISR mission since the beginning. The mysterious hypersonic aircraft featured in Top Gun Maverick, the Darkstar, was also strikingly similar to the SR-72 concept unveiled in the promotional material by Lockheed Martin.
Are the “articles” mentioned by Muradian demonstrator, prototypes or actual series aircraft?
While the SR-72 was never publicly sighted and it is unknown whether a prototype has ever been built, the existence of the RQ-180 is certain, with multiple sightings and unofficial reports. The aircraft, nicknamed the “Great White Bat” (or sometimes “Shikaka”, a fictional sacred white bat from the 1995 movie Ace Ventura 2), is a HALE (High Altitude Long Endurance) low-observable drone originally revealed in 2013, designed to operate in “contested” or “denied” airspace. The aircraft is considered similar in size and endurance to the RQ-4 Global Hawk, and so it is larger and with a much longer endurance than the RQ-170. Many consider the RQ-180 to be already operational because of the reduction in the number of RQ-4s, with the newer, more capable RQ-180 possibly taking over missions previously assigned to RQ-4s.
However, a standard UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) like the RQ-180 would take hours to reach its patrol area, even when deployed relatively close to the target; but for time-sensitive targets, that require a prompt, non-persistent presence at significant distance from the deployment base to take the images in a pretty narrow window of opportunity, a hypersonic ISR platform would be needed.
That’s the reason why the U.S. Air Force has been considering and possibly working on such capability for quite some time. And, all summed up, “a much more capable reconnaissance aircraft” mentioned by Muradian could well be a hypersonic one.
As we explained in a 2017 post about the enigmatic SR-72 and the rumors of an unmanned subscale aircraft flying into the U.S. Air Force’s Plant 42 at Palmdale, the mission of a high-speed reconnaissance platform would likely includes four unique capabilities:
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.
Again, provided the revelations are confirmed, it would be interesting to understand whether the delivered “articles” were prototypes, concept demonstrators or operational aircraft…