Skunk Works Reveals Its Secret 'Speed Racer' Aircraft

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Kyle Mizokami
·4 min read
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From Popular Mechanics

A new video from Lockheed Martin includes an exciting Easter egg: the first real glimpse of a recently teased secret aircraft.

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The star is Speed Racer, an uncrewed aerial vehicle that Lockheed’s legendary Skunk Works division built. Skunk Works is responsible for some of the most famous aircraft of all time, including the SR-71 Blackbird and U-2 Dragon Lady spy planes. Will Speed Racer someday join their ranks?

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Stephen Trimble, the defense editor at Aviation Week & Space Technology, first spotted the aircraft in the Lockheed video, which shows an orange and yellow drone fall clear of a Beech 1900 (C-12 Huron in U.S. military service), unfold a pair of wings, and streak away. The drone features a large, upright skunk, which is the famous trademark symbol of Skunk Works.

Lockheed confirmed with Trimble that the drone in the clip is indeed Speed Racer.

The video promotes the company’s new StarDrive digital design technology, which allows engineers to quickly move aircraft from the conceptual stage through the design process and to a working aircraft, from computer-aided design to robotic manufacturing.

StarDrive is meant to vastly speed up the pace at which the company can create new, competitive airplanes incorporating the latest technology. During World War II, the race to build faster, more maneuverable, more heavily armed warplanes led air forces to field new airplanes in a matter of months. Increasing technological complexity has led to aircraft like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter taking a decade or more to develop.

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Now, as China and Russia fund development of advanced fighters like the Chengdu J-20 and Sukhoi Su-57, the U.S. again finds itself in a fighter jet arms race. A system like StarDrive could allow the U.S. military to field new airplanes faster and more cheaply than its competitors, quickly cranking out new aircraft to take advantage of technological developments or fill gaps in capabilities. For example, the Air Force revealed in 2020 that it used digital engineering to secretly design, build, and test a new prototype fighter jet in the span of just one year.

Photo credit: (By Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith
Photo credit: (By Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith

In the video, Speed Racer launches from a Beech 1900, a civilian aircraft the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps fly as the C-12 Huron. Some Hurons are used in the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance roles, pointing antennas toward the ground to capture cell phone and other wireless signals, synthetic aperture radars to image enemy locations, and other sensors.

As Aviation Week points out, Speed Racer isn’t just a technology demonstrator—the Pentagon is also interested in Speed Racer in an operational role. This suggests two different roles for the C-12/Speed Racer combo.

Photo credit: Lockheed Martin/DVIDS
Photo credit: Lockheed Martin/DVIDS

The first role is as a flying sensor extension. Because it’s a militarized civilian aircraft, the C-12 lacks the maneuverability, speed, and defensive systems of purely military aircraft. As the U.S. pivots toward great power conflict, its aircraft will face greater air defense threats from systems such as the Chinese HQ-9 and Russian S-400 “Triumf” surface-to-air missile systems.

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Both systems have the range to force aircraft like the C-12 farther away from the battlefield. An uncrewed aerial vehicle like Speed Racer, however, could streak into enemy airspace with a sensor package, sending data back to the C-12 that launched it.

Speed Racer could also be used as a cruise missile. A Speed Racer with a high explosive warhead could allow a C-12 to attack an enemy headquarters unit, communications facility, or other enemy target it identifies during the course of a mission. The C-12 could then service the target—with a Speed Racer cruise missile—without having to coordinate the air strike with another aircraft.

If a C-12 can carry two Speed Racers, one drone could penetrate enemy territory on a spying mission while the second takes out identified targets with an explosive warhead.

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