Air Force Developing New Stealth Spy Plane : Lockheed Apparent Contractor in Secret Project to Build Updated Photo-Reconnaissance Craft

Times Staff Writers

The Air Force is developing a new high-speed, high-altitude spy plane designed to elude enemy radar, defense industry sources said Sunday.

The new stealth-type aircraft, a successor to the 25-year-old SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance plane, will be built by Lockheed Aeronautical Systems Group in Burbank, which also built the SR-71 and the F-19 stealth fighter, the sources said.

Lockheed and Defense Department officials would not comment on the secret program.

“Lockheed’s position is that, even if such an airplane exists, we couldn’t discuss it because it would be a classified project,” a company spokesman said Sunday.


Higher, Faster Flight

The new photo-reconnaissance jet is being designed to fly faster and higher than the SR-71, which holds current world records for speed and altitude. The SR-71 can fly at three times the speed of sound, or Mach 3, and sustain an altitude of 85,000 feet. In 1976, it set a speed record of 2,193 m.p.h. It has flown from New York to London in one hour and 55 minutes.

The new stealth reconnaissance aircraft reportedly will be capable of speeds nearing Mach 5, or 3,800 m.p.h., and of flying at an altitude above 100,000 feet. The new plane’s specifications, performance criteria and cost are classified and were not available.

Although 30 SR-71s were built in the 1960s, only about nine are still operational, according to defense sources. The older plane’s dwindling numbers and aging technology spurred the Air Force to begin developing a successor several years ago.

In its 1986 budget request, the Air Force, apparently inadvertently, asked for $2.1 billion for a secret program code-named Aurora. That project was widely believed to have been the building of a new, manned reconnaissance aircraft, but the Air Force never confirmed the project’s existence and it was not mentioned in later appropriations bills.

Stealth technology depends on advanced materials and sleek contours that make the aircraft all but invisible to current radars. The Air Force currently is building a stealth bomber, the B-2, and reportedly is flight-testing the F-19, a stealth fighter, at a test range at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Northrop Corp. of California is the prime contractor on the B-2.

Defense industry financial analysts deduced that Lockheed is involved in the reconnaissance plane project because its Aeronautical Systems Group will have more than $1.1 billion in 1988 that cannot be attributed to any known aircraft program.


Other indirect evidence of the program’s existence is found in the continuing high employment at Lockheed’s aircraft manufacturing facilities in Burbank at a time when orders for its C-130 transport plane and the F-19 fighter have been declining.

Industry analysts David J. Smith of Alex. Brown & Sons and Suzanne D. Patrick of Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. recently published reports on Lockheed’s finances that unearthed the unexplained billion-dollar surplus in the company’s Aeronautical Systems budget. Smith said the figure probably could be attributed to the new reconnaissance plane project; Patrick said the money was being spent on unspecified stealth programs.

Clues at Lockheed

“Lockheed has done a lot of work on stealth and high-speed flight,” said analyst Wolfgang Demisch of the First Boston securities firm. “They have said they are working on various projects, which they have not further identified.”

Demisch said that Lockheed’s work on the stealth fighter cannot account for the aeronautical division’s extra revenues, and that a new stealth reconnaissance plane is the most plausible explanation.

Although much of the nation’s aerial reconnaissance today is conducted via satellite, the military continues to rely on manned aircraft for specialized missions flown on short notice. The SR-71s, based at Beale Air Force Base near Sacramento and flying also out of bases in England and Japan, can photograph 100,000 square miles of territory in an hour. The plane can be kept in the air as long as 12 hours with in-flight refueling.

The older U-2 spy planes, 55 of which were built beginning in the late 1950s, are also used for photo reconnaissance, but those aging planes are being phased out. The then-secret U-2 made headlines in 1960 when the Soviet Union shot one down. The pilot, Francis Gary Powers, bailed out over Soviet territory and was captured, tried and imprisoned.


Other U.S. reconnaissance aircraft include the TR-1, a derivative of the U-2; the RF-4C, a version of the F-4 Phantom fighter, and several versions of the EC-130 and EC-135 used for electronic eavesdropping and photo surveillance.

John M. Broder reported from Washington and Ralph Vartabedian reported from Los Angeles.