The world’s first-ever stealth aircraft, the U-2 spy plane, fastest manned aircraft ever and the first 5th-generation fighter jet .. were all created by the famous, yet highly secretive Skunk Works division of Lockheed Martin.
The Gulf War debut of the F-117 Night Hawk introduced the world to stealth technology, the SR-71 set unprecedented speed records and the U.S. Air Force F-22 is credited as the world’s first ever 5th-gen platform.
Skunk Works History
How did something so impactful and famous begin? Part of its origin can be traced to Nazi fighter jets such as the WWII plane which made up the bulk of Germany’s Luftwaffe, the Messerschmitt Bf 109.
Beginning in the early 1940s, the dangers presented by the German aircraft drove the U.S. to massively fast track its first jet-propulsion fighter jet, the XP 80.
“Take yourself back to the late 1930s and early 1940s, World War II is ongoing. All of a sudden jet propulsion in a thing, but hasn’t really deployed operationally. All of a sudden, the German’s start showing up with the Messerschmitt Bf 109 .. and the U.S. didn’t really have an immediate answer,” Renee Pasman, Integrated Systems Director, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works®, told The National Interest in an interview.
Amazing to think that Nazi Germany’s jet-propulsion fighter jet laid part of the comparative foundation for the U.S. to designate special teams of highly-expert innovators such as scientists, researchers and weapons developers. The premise of Skunk Works has, since its inception, based upon being proactive and not merely “reactive.”
“We prefer to be disruptors instead of being disrupted.” If we see a problem coming, we want to make sure that, you know, as a nation we're prepared to respond. Skunk Works was really set up to do one thing, which was to solve a national need and do things that hadn’t been done before by pushing the boundaries of what’s possible,” Pasman said.
Skunk Works Present
Given this history, which included early work on what became the F-35, many might wonder what Skunk Works is working on now? Who knows? And that is the point, as most of its work is, by design, secret for obvious security reasons.
Part of the innovation philosophy, Pasman explained, is to pair or team up collections of otherwise disconnected experts who might specialize in different, yet potentially overlapping areas of expertise. It would make sense as this kind of “teaming” might give rise to unanticipated synergies or potential avenues of exploration.
Take, for instance, the now airborne 6th-Generation stealth fighter jet. While previous concepts and planning anticipated the new potentially paradigm-changing plane to emerge in the 2030s, early prototypes are already airborne.
There are likely a number of reasons for its acceleration and developmental success, which include things like digital engineering, it is not surprising to know Skunk Works has been deeply immersed in the study and exploration of 6th-Generation platforms for more than a decade.
While the specifics of what was contributed are most naturally not available, it would not seem like a huge stretch to imagine it has had much to do with advancing the technology such that it could take to the skies much sooner than expected.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.