back to article Blackswift hyperplane hits trouble in Washington

The most ambitious hypersonic aircraft project known to exist - the Mach-6-barrelroll "Blackswift" proposal - has run into stiff opposition from politicoes in control of Washington purse-strings, according to reports. The late, great SR-71 doing its thing A fast blast from the past - the original Blackbird. Wired magazine …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Cutting something in half...

    ...generally kills it, if it's any more complex than an earthworm...

    While I completely agree with Lewis that humanity needs this technological development, trying to do it on insufficient money isn't even worth starting. Cut the whole budget or let it ride. Or produce a detailed analysis of why the specific cuts are being made so that everyone can see how good you are at keeping things keen and lean. Oops, sorry, forgot for a moment that it's a Senate appropriations committee.

  2. Ross

    A certain irony

    I can't help but feel that had the DoD not spent billions needlessly invading Middle East countries recently they would have had plenty in the kitty to make new fangled toys like this.

    However, this is just boffins pushing the envelope, and has no practical use in current or medium term time frames. Who do we think we need to use it against? A bunch of goat herders with land mines? The days of war on the battlefield are pretty much over, in the same way that lining up in your shiney red coat and charging the enemy are over.

    If they want to blow a fat wad of green on something the military can use they should really be creating stuff for the poor buggers on the ground.

  3. Mike Plunkett
    Black Helicopters

    SR-71 Strengths

    Promptness wasn't really the Blackbirds best feature, although when stationed alongside supporting KC-135Q tankers like it was at Mildenhall and Kadena it could get to where it was needed in a pretty timely fashion. No, the biggest thing that the SR-71 had over spy satellites was that it was unpredictable. Everyone knows where and when a satellite will appear over the horizon and can there tailor their activites to take this into account. The Blackbird, however, could in theory turn up anywhere and at any time which makes the security issue a whole lot more problematic.

    Helicopter because it's a Black(whirly)bird.

  4. Neil Cooper
    Paris Hilton

    I never did understand...

    Ever since the SR-71 came out, I've always wondered why it had to be so leaky.

    I understand the whole aircraft expands by a few inches under the extreme heat of mach3 flight, so it needs expansion joints all over it (i.e. not water/fuel-tight), but surely that doesn't need to apply to the fuel tanks and lines themselves?

    Even if it did, couldn't they just line the inside of the fuel tanks with something flexible yet impermeable like a big bag or something?

  5. Brad

    Irony, but...

    If they didn't attack supposed terror states then there wouldn't be such a need for new war gear. See, you have to spend some in order to be able to, uhh, spend some more.

    But really, I think satellites can completely eliminate any need for whateversonic warbirds. We already use them for spying, and no doubt they're already working on dropping bombs, now all that's needed is a space troop carrier. Keep a small platoon up there in capsules ready to be dropped at a moments notice to sniff out osama's droppings (or whatever is taking them so long.) You could keep them in a sleep statis state or even cryogenically frozen and let the reentry thaw them out.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Neil Cooper

    The fuel did double duty -- circulating under the aircraft skin to cool the tremendous heat generated by atmospheric friction caused by Mach 3 speeds. This had the added advantage of pre-heating the fuel thus making the combustion process more efficient.

  7. Trevor Pott Gold badge


    "You could keep them in a sleep stasis state or even cryogenically frozen and let the reentry thaw them out."

    Playing a little too much command an conquer there. Frozen "zone troopers" are simply not possible at our level of technology. IIRC, putting a person in cryo and then thawing them is in theory possible, but the circumstances required to do so are...complex. So much so that the process can't be said to be "reliably reproducible."

    In other words: you can freeze your GIs, but when they unthaw, they'll be dead.

    As to "satellites dropping bombs," apart from the number of treaties that would break, it's economically unfeasible. Bombs need maintenance, systems tests, etc. IIRC, it's $20k per lb on non-man-rated rockets to get equipment up there. To weaponise space enough to offer complete, redundant planetary coverage with well maintained bombs of both precision and "kill the civilians 'accidentally' because we need to steal their resources" bombs would cost far more than just developing a few new classes of plane.

    Mine's the one with the mirror-shroud cloaking field.

  8. Dave

    @Trevor Pott

    I thought Brad was joking about the frozen zone troopers....

    "Bombs need maintenance, systems tests, etc." - hmm true up to a point. However 10kg of iron (or perhaps a more sophisticated alloy) dropped from a few hundred miles up would do a fair bit of damage (as its energy would be 1/2mtimesvsquared) as long as you had some way of guiding it in to the target - the old "smart crowbar" idea that Larry Niven describes in "Footfall" but certainly pre-dates that. All you'd need would be some fins on the back and a GPS guidance system - all just extensions of existing tech. Of course knowing where to hit is the tricky part.

  9. Remy Redert

    @Trevor Pott

    While I agree with your assesment of cryogenic storage of humans, you gravely overestimate the complexity of planetary bombardment from space.

    When dropping objects from orbit through a suitably sized magnetic accelerator, there is no need for a warhead, detonator or other normally complicated parts in the projectile being launched. The only moving part would be whatever you use to reload your gun after the first shot.

    A well designed gaussgun in space would be able to last indefinately in its idle state, although the ammo availble to it is going to be rather limited. On the other hand, a couple of kilograms of iron alloy smacking into the ground at upwards of 25km/s will not leave a bloody mess at the impact zone. It will just leave a glassed crater.

  10. Anonymous Coward


    The fuel did quadruple duty. It was the fuel (d'oh) and it cooled the airframe, but it also cooled the considerable payload of avionics AND was used as the fluid for the plane's hydraulics.

    BTW, "barrel roll"? "Slowpoke"? I see what you did there!

  11. Chris G

    Boom !

    There is no need in the case of orbital weapons to be as fancy as even a Gauss gun, just park a couple of tons of solid steel in orbit about 2k out with attitude jets and a bursting charge designed to create a dozen large lumps. Whilst the orbital velocity at 2k is only about a thousand miles an hour, from that distance it will accelerate appreciably on it's way in, with reasonable telemetry and a bit of number crunching accuracy is not too bad on a national scale and bursting the thing at the right time to create several interesting chunks will give you a bit more than a glazed crater.

  12. Thomas

    Time Frame....

    For these projects is irrelvant. Short Term/Medium term projects are great, but they don't push the envelope of science that you can build on down the line. This is not an argument one way or another.

    As a geek I would love to see this go through, as a Tax payer, not so much unless they cut current useless projects. I think money needs to be put into alternative propulsion methods (IE non existent, Non fossil fuel based fuels) Which I'm sure they are working on, but I think if you are going to push this kind of plane, you should have more than what we have in this department first.

    I grew up as a kid dreaming of the blackbird, and would love to see a successor. But with the predator and global hawk automated flight technologies out there, Manned missions are soon to be extinct anyway.

  13. Joe Cooper
    Dead Vulture

    Space bombs - are you kidding me?

    Remy Redert, you're oversimplifying them unrealistically. I don't even know where to begin.

    So I'll start with the fact that a couple of kilograms of iron alloy ejected from a space launcher will make a small glassed crater about a hundred miles away from the target - if you're good.

    Even from 5 miles high you can't drop a dumb bomb perfectly accurately, and I'm talking about ones that make a big kaboom (to lower the margin of error) and have fins and aerodynamic shape. The atmosphere is a major wildcard.

    Even bombs dropped from an airplane are NOT that simple - and yes, they come down with PLENTY of speed, enough to penetrate DEEP into concrete before blowing up, so you can really rip up a runway if you need to.

    Now, let's say that we DO have a bomb with whatever it needs. You still need an orbital maneuvering system either on the bomb or on a launcher that contains the bombs.

    The ~big~ reason is that you need to actually be able to change your orbital inclination so that you ~actually go over~ your target. This is a VERY fuel expensive operation, especially if you're dragging 5000 tons of bombs. This launcher will need to be huuuuuuge. You're only going to be able to afford a few inclination changes even if you made the thing an epic god of satellites. This thing will need to be far, far bigger than the space station to be useful.

    And guess what? It'll take so LONG to maneuver it that it won't actually be any faster.

    So maybe you could put the manuevering system on the bombs.

    But then, why even do that? Why not just keep the bombs on the ground, and launch them into space with a ton of speed so that they accurately fall on their target thanks to the magic of math and some kind of attitude control in the warhead?

    That'd be a great idea!

    So great, in fact, that everyone already has this.

    You might be thinking, "But then you have to launch a rocket to space every time you want to drop a bomb!" Guess what. You STILL need to launch every ounce of this system on a rocket.

    Much, much BIGGER, more expensive rockets using a lot more fuel because putting something into ORBIT is a lot more expensive than a suborbital ICBM trajectory.

    So, is orbital bombing too complex? No, but it's bloody stupid.

  14. Lukin Brewer

    Orbital bombardment.

    I think the late, great Arthur C. Clarke put it best: " would take as much energy to get [a munition] down from orbit as it would to get it up there."

    Certainly, atmospheric drag can do part of the work for you, but with the increased delivery times, and the fact that it's still going to need terminal guidance, it would be better to make do with a ballistic missile. Or a cruise missile, even.

  15. Nick Collingridge

    Crazy crazy crazy

    This idea is completely dumb because (just in case someone hasn't been following what's going on in the world) the fossil fuels needed to power something like this ARE RUNNING OUT.

    Not straight away, but we're already into the zone where demand is outstripping supply. Even the Chief Executive of BP is on record (FT article, June 11th) as saying that we only have 40 years of supply left. And, for obvious reasons, that's probably overstating it. What's more, all the easy and good stuff has been plundered in the past, so what's left is the harder and less easily refined stuff.

    So something like this project is just stupid given that in, let's say (optimistically) twenty years time fossil fuels are going to be in much shorter supply and will probably be desperately needed just to keep our civilisation going. Unless we've entirely switched over to renewable sources of energy by then, and who thinks that's going to happen?

    What a total waste of time, energy and effort something like this is in the modern world. I'm delighted to see that the powers that be have (unusually) some common sense about this ridiculous project, even if their concerns are coming from other, and equally valid, directions.

  16. Anonymous Coward

    Hey El Reg, you're looking pretty stupid here

    “…after a Mach 3 dash along Vietnam's demilitarised zone or wherever.”

    Do your homework. The SR-71 was incredibly invaluable. For example, it circled over China in 1967 and photographed the first Chinese H-Bomb explosion. It was later learned that the Chinese saw it on their radar, but dismissed it as a radar artifact because “nothing can fly in circles that fast”.

    Satellites, if they can be retasked at all, require huge expenditures of fuel and take days-to-weeks to alter their orbits to get a better glimpse of something. The SR-71 could go anywhere on the planet in hours, and even when there was a tanker latency issue, they still beat satellites for speed and flexibility when the area of interest is fast changing. Even will the need to air refuel during record setting flights, since 1974 it has held the world record from London to New York of 1 hour 54 minutes and 56.4 seconds, and the record for London to Los Angeles of 3 hours 47 minutes and 39 seconds.

  17. Wesley Parish

    useless troop transports

    hypersonic troop transports are the most useless waste of money I can think of. Just think, you've got this several billion dollars invested in this aerospacecraft, designed to shoot off into a near-orbit flight path, with a small number of highly-trained troops, then drop down into someone else's aerospace, land at an airport and take over.

    The problem is of course the landing. If the people whose lives you're planning on disrupting, get the word that you're on the way, and they've only got a few international airports, all they need to do to disrupt said hypersonic troop transport - and probably bankrupt you in the process - is arrange for a kerosene tanker to get stuck on the one airstrip that is large enough for the hypersonic troop transport to land on. Or oil it up in honour of the visitors, or sand it down, or dump the entire output of a marbles factory on it, or pour some concrete or something constructive like that.

    I suggest that the US Congress send the various members of DARPA who have come up with such a hare-brained scheme, to the appropriate brain care specialists.

  18. Adam Foxton


    I don't know about you, but if it was a choice between... well, pretty much anything our government's autonomously decided to do in the last few years... and a Hypersonic fighter/bomber/troop-carrier then I know which I'd choose.

    The problem with long-term plans is that they never come to fruition within your term of office. So the chances are your opponents will reap the rewards of your good planning- not something a career politician wants to happen. The annoying thing is that the current UK gov has been in power for over a decade. They concievably COULD have done something impressive like this even without compromising their other schemes and plots.

    To summarise, we could -and should- have got the Millennium Falcon. We got the Millennium dome. And as someone's already said, budget cuts are bloody stupid. They'll waste the half they've already got and then say "well, we could have done it with the other half. You've just wasted a few billion taxpayers dollars." very publicly to drum up support for their next project.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    Necessary Evil

    We need the super-sexy tech to keep the fickle sci-fi desensitised masses aroused by frumpy old everyday science.

    Dogeared posters of SR-71 and Kathy Ireland adorned 80's teenager's bedroom walls not because they were temperamental and leaky and expensive to maintain, but because they had an aesthetic that keyed into the natural wish-fulfillment fantasy of the testosterone flooded male.

    Of course, as we grow older we find ourselves more strongly attracted to the robust, practical, architecturally sound, and aesthetically interesting C-130 (or, say, a Janeane Garafalo) but we still find our heads turned, and our wallets opened, by a pretty young scramjet in a low-cut, curved, carbon fibre midriff cowling promising to blow our minds out our ears with an ultrasonic concussion wave (cash or credit card accepted).

    Paris, because form-before-function will always have its place even if it is just that hormone-fueled lapse in rational judgment that precedes a great leap forward or a tragic walk of shame.

  20. Anonymous Coward

    @AC Cutting Something in half ...generally kills it, if it's any more complex than an earthworm...

    Cutting an earthworm in half kills it as well.

    In fact if you chop just about anything from the animal world in half it dies. With some exceptions like TAPE WORM.

    Bloody techies, if it doesn't go beep/whirr then they are all at sea. You might as well be talking to children.

  21. TeeCee Gold badge

    Resolution for Blackbirds.

    You also need to take into account what could be seen from a satellite using crappy 60s / 70s vintage electronic imaging and telemetry (let's leave the stopgap Corona system out of this) against what could be seen from a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft with a phenomenally good film camera in those days.

    One of the major reasons that Blackbird retired was the massive improvement in deployed satellite imaging to the level where there was little significant advantage in flying a plane over the target.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Nick Collingridge

    You'd run it on Hydrogen instead, or biofuels, or, as a government, you would just appropriate enough black gold to run your hypersonic death toys and tell your people to buy smaller SUVs.

    IIRC from when I was at school in the 70s and 80s we were told if we didn't stop burning crude so quickly it would all run out by 2000 - 2010 at the latest. Good job we have all stopped using so much fuel since then, eh?

    Not saying fuel is infinite, and not necessarily saying it won't run out soon but you seriously believe an oil baron when he basically says: "buy it now whilst stocks last, only $130 per barrel. Now $140, $145 $250 quick, buy now now, before it all runs out" etc.

  23. Anonymous Coward

    I've flown in a C130,...

    didn;t find it nearly as obnoxious as Janeane Garafalo.

  24. Anonymous Coward

    @Joe Cooper re ICBM

    Trouble with ICBM is that the enemy knows you're about to hit them because their agents see them being launched. Space weapons are always loaded and ready to drop. Since we talking US space weapons, they just need to put them on geo-stationary orbit over Iraq,Afganistan and China. If the US need to bomb anyone else, chances are they are neighbours to those three countries anyway.

    In fact, thinking about it, just equip the GPS sats with munitions. Great cover story for the Americans (or have they already done that.... ?).

    Death to all mankind cos the yanks can't hit squat unless it's flying a friendly flag.

  25. Wesley Parish

    ICBM versus geostationary death satellites

    Umm, slight problem there, me hearty!

    "Since we talking US space weapons, they just need to put them on geo-stationary orbit over Iraq,Afganistan and China."

    Geostationary orbit is strictly equatorial. None of the above - Iraq, Afghanistan, China - are on the equator. And geostationary orbit is way, way out. It costs so much to deorbit from there that you may as well run the geostationary death satellite for US President.

    You're absolutely right about the US military not being able to hit what they're aiming for, though - everybody in the Eighth Army dreaded the arrival of the USAAF bombers.

  26. Anonymous Coward

    @Wesley Parish; Geostationary <> Equatorial?

    Are you sure? All you need is to have the satellite orbit at the same speed as the Earth rotates... but the satellites will need to move slower the nearer the poles you get as the diameter they travel 'over' is smaller.

    Of course, the "best" answer is to go for the 'string of pearls' idea and have so many of the little buggers up there that there's always one "overhead"...

    Alien head cos we're way behind the Bug-Eyed Monsters on this (war)front anyway... you think the Asteroid Belt is an accident??

  27. Jon
    Dead Vulture

    @AC Re: ICBMs

    Actually, the fact that the enemy could see your ICBMs launching was actually considered a GOOD THING during the Cold War.

    In the mirror-world of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) what you wanted to do was convince the enemy that they couldn't survive your counterattack, not that they would never see your attack coming in the first place.

    See, if I know that you could attack me without warning then why hold back from attacking first? At least that way I get in my $0.02 on your socioeconomic system before you have a chance to obliterate me. On the other hand, if I know that you can only attack me in a way that gives me sufficient warning to warm up my own rockets then I can be pretty sure that you'll give it a good long think before trying anything... foolish.

    It's why the Russians -- and pretty much the rest of the world -- hated Star Wars: they were afraid that some yahoo in the American military might end up thinking that it was just enough of an advantage to make a nuclear war 'winnable' (i.e. your own cities slowly die in a freezing nuclear winter, but you 'won' because they're not yet reduced to puddles of radioactive silica).

    I *love* the logical effort that goes into strategizing with these weapons.

  28. Dave
    Thumb Up

    anyway, back to the KC-135Q

    the Q shows that some of these Merkin airborne filling stations had to be modified to refuel the Blackbird; the fuel was so waxy it needed preheating in order to get it down the spout to the receiving spy plane.

    Only saw a Blackbird live once - for about 10 seconds - landed at St Mawgan (Newquay airport as the grockles now call it) and taxied into a hangar sharpish - breathtakingly wonderfully gorgeous

  29. StopthePropaganda
    Thumb Up

    It's only a waste of money

    until it isn't. It's only theoretical until it isn't. Vision lacking naysayers of today were probably the same narrow minded folks (or their immediate descendents) who said that supersonic aircraft were useless too. The X-1, having finicky rockets for propulsion, couldn't even take off under it's own power. How's that for being completely militarily useless?

    Cue decades later-worldwide, every first and second-world nation owns and flies fleets of air-superiority fighters that maintain their security. Three nations (maybe four) make aircraft that *cruise* at above mach speeds. No one with even half a clue would deny the importance of having supersonic aircraft in ones' air force. Now, business executive transport aircraft are readily available that have to be *restricted* to keep from breaking the sound barrier

    But, even more important, is the question Mr. Page proposes at the end: How much is hypersonic, Single Stage To Orbit reusable spacelift capability worth? And the answer will be: significantly more than is spent. Especially worldwide. Yanks and Limeys spend the dough and push the envelope, and decades later, just about every significant nation and multinational corporation has the ability to launch and *retrieve* orbital payloads, two or three times a day.

    It's not quite Moore's Law, but you can bet that any fickle technological prototype out of government research, that has any commercial value, will become almost commonplace, given time. Aluminum, titanium, the Internet....the list goes on.

  30. Joe Cooper

    Hahahahahah @ AC

    GEO is the most ridiculous thing ever. It takes tremendous fuel to deorbit, as mentioned.

    But saying that it's less detectable than ICBMs is the most ridiculous thing ever.

    Your launcher is in a ~high orbit~. Screw agents, ~everyone~ can see it. All you need a good IR telescope to spot engine firings. And guess what? Being in GEO means you NEVER HAVE TO ADJUST YOUR TELESCOPE. It's always in the same place in the sky.

    And then what? You have a LOT more time before the hammer drops. Coming down from GEO can take many, many hours, maybe a day I can't remember. ICBMs are there in a flash, comparatively.

    Ditto for GPS sats which orbit at a good altitude and everyone has a very clear idea of how big they're supposed to be. When you start launching 200 ton GPS satellites, EVERYONE is going to notice and you'll have the KGB sending agents to figure out what you're doing. And yes, still high enough that you have to put up a lot of fuel for deorbiting.

    There's simply no hiding what you're doing, and it's simply not faster than ICBMs which, MAD aside, can carry any warhead they put on.

    Either way, a closer parallel to the goal of orbit bombing as described would be short range cruise missiles launched by the navy. The navy can use nuclear carriers with electric propulsion (which is irrelevant to orbital bombing) and can hit targets anywhere, very very fast, with satellite assistance for photos and GPS to target and guide the missiles.

    A tomahawk only costs around a million dollars, beating ICBMs by a mile and orbital bombing by a lightyear.

    There's also aircraft can put bombs down anywhere they want, moving targets or not. Take the F-15E for example. It features an IR telescope and laser so that they can track and direct bombs at moving targets or targets that have relocated.

    Lastly, I'd like to remind everyone that the US has ant-sat weapons ready to go, China has done it before and while I haven't checked I have to assume that Russia has it ready to go too since, like the US, they've done it ~multiple times~.

    In summary, the good systems use satellites extensively to make air, sea and ground based weapons far superior AND more economical AND faster than orbital bombing.

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