Air Force Chief Noncommittal on Lockheed Martin's SR-72 Concept
Defense news websites and blogs ignited earlier this month when Lockheed Martin announced its successor to the famed SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, the hypersonic SR-72 aircraft. Lockheed has said a working demonstrator could be in the skies by 2030.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh acknowledged that hypersonic capabilities would be advantageous for the Air Force, but he had not spoken to Lockheed officials about the SR-72 and would not comment on whether the service was interested in the aircraft.
Nevertheless, he said he was interested in hypersonic technology.
“It’s something that appeals to me for a very simple reason, not because it’s cool, but because speed compresses decision times," he told reporters on Nov. 13. "Anything you can do to decrease an adversary's decision timeline and give you the advantage in action is a good thing. So if it's practical to pursue hypersonics and create that ability to move at a much, much faster speed than we could in the past, it's worth pursuing. But how far we go, I don't have any idea."
The unmanned SR-72 would be equipped with an integrated turbine engine and dual-model ramjet, providing the thrust and acceleration needed to fly the aircraft at six times the speed of sound, according to company information.
“Hypersonic aircraft coupled with hypersonic missiles could penetrate denied airspace and strike at nearly any location across a continent in less than an hour,” Brad Leland, Lockheed Martin program manager for hypersonics, said in a news release.
Earlier this year, the Air Force successfully flew its X-51 WaveRider demonstration aircraft at hypersonic speeds. The X-51, manufactured by Boeing, traveled 230 nautical miles in about six minutes during a May flight over the Naval Air Warfare Center Sea Range in Point Mugu, Calif.
The demonstration proved that hypersonic flight could be a plausible investment for the service, said Welsh. But if the Air Force pursues that capability, it may incorporate it in a weapons system such as a missile rather than an aircraft.
"Right now, we don’t have the material to do anything other than the size of a WaveRider, which is not an [full-scale] airplane,” he said. “I think it would probably start small, and who knows where it will go after that.”
"Just think how cool you'd look in a hypersonic airplane. That drives all of our decisions, doesn't it?" he joked.
That moment of levity contrasted with the overall theme of his remarks: The Air Force is struggling to find a balance between capability, capacity and readiness as budget cuts and sequestration continue.
If sequestration extends through 2023, the service will have to cut about 50 percent of its modernization programs, Welsh said.
The Air Force is committed to protecting its three top acquisition priorities — the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the KC-135 refueling tanker and the long range strike bomber. As the service is challenged by aging aircraft fleets, those three programs will be necessary to keeping the service relevant in the next decade, he said.
For instance, when Boeing delivers the last KC-46 tanker in 2028, two-thirds of the tanker fleet will be more than 65 years old, Welsh said.
"By 2025, there will be fifth-generation technology produced by other countries that is in the battlespace,” he said. “I certainly hope we're not fighting Russia or China, and I don't believe we will be, but we'll see their equipment. They export. ... It will be on the streets and we'll be fighting it. And their new stuff will be better than our legacy stuff."
The Air Force hopes to be able to field a new bomber at the price of $550 million a copy. That aircraft’s design will not be based on unproven technologies, Welsh said. “That’s when prices start to get out of control” and requirements start to change.
Acquisition of new platforms and weapons systems isn’t the only thing that is feeling the pains of sequestration; readiness has taken a hit as well.
Realistically, the Air Force can only keep 80 percent of its combat units ready at any time, Welsh said. That allows the service to meet all of its demands, such as homeland defense, responding to combatant command needs and providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Before sequestration, that number had dropped to 55 percent. Today, less than 40 percent of combat units are ready for combat, Welsh said. “We think that’s going to last for a while. The sequester cuts accounts like flying hours [and] weapons system sustainment. That takes directly from our ability to keep units ready day to day.”
That can lead to a longer response time and fewer options for decision-makers, he said.
Ultimately, cutting training hours could end up being more expensive than keeping pilots ready for combat. It can take three times as much money to re-qualify someone to fly an airplane compared to someone who maintains that state of readiness, Welsh said.