* SR-72 would travel at six times the speed of sound
* Lockheed aims for affordable plane, gives no price details
* Says hypersonic missiles could be ready for use in 2020
By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, Nov 1 (Reuters) - Lockheed Martin Corp unveiled plans on Friday for a hypersonic spy plane that couldfly at Mach 6, twice as fast as its famed SR-71 Blackbird, andsaid a missile demonstrating the new technology could fly asearly as 2018.
Brad Leland, the Lockheed engineer who has headed theseven-year research effort, said the new aircraft, dubbed theSR-72, was designed using off-the-shelf materials to keep itaffordable in the current tough budget environment.
He said the new plane offered game-changing capabilities tothe military - and a twin-engine demonstrator jet that couldreach any target in an hour could be developed for under $1billion in five to six years.
"Hypersonic is the new stealth," Leland told Reuters in aninterview. "Your adversaries cannot hide or move their criticalassets. They will be found. That becomes a game-changer."
The new aircraft would travel three times as fast as currentfighter jets, which can reach speeds of Mach 2, twice the speedof sound, and it could be outfitted with light weapons to striketargets.
Aviation Week first reported Lockheed's work on the projectearlier on Friday in a cover article entitled "Son ofBlackbird." Lockheed developed the supersonic SR-71 Blackbird, along-range manned spy plane, 50 years ago. A few of those planesremained in service until 1999.
Details of the new hypersonic spy plane project emerged daysafter Lockheed, the Pentagon's biggest supplier, teamed up withNo. 2 supplier Boeing Co to develop a bid for thePentagon's new long-range bomber.
Lockheed, Boeing and other big weapons makers are pressingthe Pentagon to continue funding new aircraft developmentprograms despite big cuts in military spending, arguing that aretreat from such projects could undercut U.S. militarysuperiority in years to come.
Leland, who works for Lockheed's Skunk Works advanceddevelopment arm, said missiles based on the new technology couldbe ready for operational use in 2020, at a cost only slightlymore than the current Tomahawk or JASSM missiles.
Lockheed declined to say how much it had invested in theSR-72 project to date, or what the new airplane might cost if itis ever built. But it said it had tried to keep the currenttight budget environment in mind while working on the project.
"What we are doing is defining a missile that would have asmall incremental cost to go at hypersonic speed," Leland said.He said about 20 Lockheed employees had worked on the project.
One key factor in keeping the new project affordable was adecision to limit speed to Mach 6, rather than reaching forhigher speeds that would require more expensive materials suchas those used on the space shuttle, Leland said.
He said top Pentagon officials had been briefed on theprogram's progress and they were very interested in the newtechnology as a possible way to counter work by potentialadversaries on technologies that could detect stealth aircraft.
He said the company and its partners had developed andtested key components of the proposed new aircraft using theirown internal research funding, but the program needed additionalfunds to move ahead with larger-scale demonstrations of thetechnologies involved.
Rob Stallard, analyst with RBC Capital Markets, said in anote on Friday that the new aircraft could help the U.S.military quickly identify or hit targets that were intentionallyhidden or protected by an enemy's air defenses. He said theprevious SR-71 was "the coolest airplane ever made, rivaled onlyby fictional aircraft."
Leland said Lockheed had worked closely with AerojetRocketdyne, a unit of GenCorp Inc, to develop apropulsion system for the new aircraft, which uses anoff-the-shelf turbine with a scramjet engine to reach thehypersonic speeds.
The project builds on HTV-3X, an earlier hypersonic projectfunded by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research ProjectsAgency (DARPA) that was canceled in 2008 after its turbojetengines were found not ready for further development.
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