Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Replacing the Irreplacable

Despite the engineering challenges that would seemingly preclude mythical planes like "Aurora" and "Blackstar," some people still want to believe. I think the reason why they hope against hope is because they can't bring themselves to admit that the Air Force would phase out the awesome SR-71 Blackbird without building something that was even more awesome to take its place.

Yet it's perfectly logical that the Air Force would replace the Blackbird with something much more underwhelming, especially when one looks at why the Blackbird was designed in the first place. The U-2 was (and still is) an excellent recon plane. The problem is that, even though it flies at high altitudes (around 70,000 feet,) it isn't invulnerable to anti-aircraft missiles. The Blackbird was designed to fly even higher above the enemy defenses and to be harder to hit, due to its higher speed.

The problem with the Blackbird as a surveillance system (as opposed to reconnaissance, as recon is targeted, while surveillance is broad) also arises from its defense--its astounding speed. The Blackbird can make a high-speed pass over a target, but it can't stay over it persistently. Back in the days of the cold war, where fixed missile sites drew much of the military's attention, a single pass may have been good enough. In the modern world, persistence is required--especially when you are looking for something like Zarqawi tumbling out the back end of a van and fleeing for his miserable life.

If I had the task of designing an SR-71 replacement, how would I approach this engineering problem? First, I would design the plane to be subsonic and cruise at high altitudes. It would also have large fuel tanks for long loiter time. Stealth may be included as well, to avoid detection by enemies with advanced air defenses.

Interestingly enough, two planes were developed that fit this description. First was the RQ-3 Darkstar, which was terminated in 1999. Second was the RQ-4A Global Hawk, which is flying today in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Darkstar was smaller and stealthier, while Global Hawk has exceptional loiter time. Both are unmanned, as the endurance required for an aerial surveillance system would exceed human limitations.

While I think it would be neat if we could build a hypersonic aircraft (or better yet, a two-stage orbital spaceplane,) there isn't an economical justification for the massive cost that these efforts would require. While space tourism and high-speed air travel may be a good reason to pursue these speedsters, reconnaissance and surveillance are not.