Air Force Tries to Shoot Down Its Own Spy

<i> Jeffrey Richelson is the author of "The U.S. Intelligence Community" (Ballinger)</i>

The Air Force has proudly lifted veils of secrecy around two stealth aircraft--the B-2 bomber and F-117A fighter--even while those planes’ ability to carry out assigned missions has been questioned by outside experts. At the same time, the Air Force is planning to retire, perhaps prematurely, its oldest stealth aircraft, the SR-71 spy plane, which has been eminently successful in performing its mission for more than 20 years.

Since 1966, SR-71s have flown thousands of missions from bases in California, England, Japan and Cyprus. Today, they routinely fly along the periphery of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as well as overfly Nicaragua, Cuba, Libya, Vietnam, North Korea and the Middle East.

Nicknamed “Blackbird” for its black epoxy surface, the SR-71 is a technological marvel. Looking like an arrow, a flying saucer or an enormous bat, depending on the observer’s vantage point, the 107-foot-long plane can zip along at considerably more than 2,100 miles an hour. At that speed, and with an operating altitude between 80,000 and 100,000 feet, it can photograph 100,000 square miles in a single hour.

A variety of sensors can be placed in its nose or underbelly, depending on the mission. Technical objective framing cameras are capable of producing black-and-white photography of such quality that photo-interpreters can detect objects nine inches in diameter. An optical bar camera, used against targets to the side of the plane’s flight path, can produce black-and-white or color images of almost equal quality. A third option is the high-resolution radar system, using radar returns to produce images day or night under all weather conditions.


Blackbird was designed to minimize vulnerability, the first stealth aircraft. Its shape makes radar detection difficult. Its black epoxy paint absorbs hostile radar emissions and limits heat emissions that could be detected by an enemy tracking system. It also reportedly has a system that projects the plane’s image several miles away on enemy radar, a means of electronically deflecting incoming missiles.

The Air Force decision to retire the Blackbirds in 1990 is based on several factors. In congressional testimony, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry D. Welch identified the increased survivability of reconnaissance satellites, SR-71 vulnerability to the Soviet SAM-5 surface-to-air missile and the cost of maintaining the SR-71 fleet. The cost factor is the most significant to the Air Force because it limits expenditures in other areas. Reagan Administration Air Force Secretary Edward C. Aldridge Jr. estimated that the money used to operate the SR-71 fleet could operate and maintain two tactical fighter wings.

In response to the Air Force, several members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have initiated efforts to prevent the Blackbird from dying. Ohio Sen. John Glenn said that “the SR-71 has given us a unique capability on a short-time basis that is difficult to come by in other ways.” Committee members believe that the SR-71 can function adequately for the next 20 years and, with electronic countermeasures, can repel threats from ground-based missiles or aircraft.

If the senators cannot save the Blackbird, the United States will lose a crucial intelligence asset--one that over the next 20 years would contribute far more to U.S. national security than two fighter wings.


Compared with U.S. photo-reconnaissance/imaging satellites, reconnaissance aircraft do have limitations. Unlike aircraft, satellites are in orbit 24 hours a day and can overfly every nation on earth without political repercussion. The SR-71 does not overfly Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union or China for political reasons, limiting coverage of those areas to targets that can be photographed from outside national borders. Nor can SR-71s cover other nations with the frequency attainable by satellites.

Yet the Blackbird has its own advantages. Satellites, even those already in orbit, cannot be dispatched to cover events on short notice; the laws of physics say otherwise. The SR-71s deployed in England, Cyprus and Japan can be quickly dispatched to photograph events in Europe, the Middle East and Asia respectively. It was an SR-71 that was ordered on emergency mission over Israel in October, 1973, in response to reports that Israel was arming Jericho missiles with nuclear warheads.

Satellites are also limited because they generally fly a well-defined orbit. Nations with a space-tracking capability (or access to space-tracking data from allies) can take measures to conceal or camouflage targets from satellite cameras as they pass overhead. A nation preparing to employ chemical or nuclear weapons may suspend and conceal preparations during those known times when reconnaissance satellites will be overhead. In contrast, by the time an unexpected SR-71 appears on a radar scope it is far too late for camouflage or concealment.

The Blackbird also offers insurance against satellite failures--as amply demonstrated in recent years. Attempts in 1985 and 1986 to place reconnaissance satellites in orbit failed because of problems with the Titan 34D launch vehicle. The Challenger disaster then compounded the trouble. From 1986 until Titan flights could be resumed in late 1987, the United States could not put new reconnaissance satellites in orbit, forcing the U.S. intelligence community to rely on one aging KH-11. The SR-71 was a crucial backup, conserving the capability of that KH-11 until the space program was back in business. Blackbird missions over a variety of nations, including Cuba and Nicaragua, were increased so that the KH-11 could be largely restricted to Soviet, East European and Chinese targets that could not be photographed by the SR-71--such as the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl.


The ability to present visual evidence to the world and to the American public may also be a casualty of the Air Force decision. The State and Defense departments have released SR-71 photographs of Soviet military installations in Vietnam and Cuba, military facilities in Nicaragua and Libya’s Benina airfield after it was attacked by U.S. planes. The United States has a policy of never releasing satellite photographs. On some occasions--such as installations in Nicaragua and Cuba--targets have been rephotographed by Blackbirds so that pictures could be publicly released. While the policy of refusing to release satellite photographs is dubious at best, there is no indication that it is likely to change. Thus, the United States might be unable to provide public photographic evidence of a chemical weapons plant, a foreign military base or troop deployments near borders.

If the SR-71 were truly vulnerable, its theoretical advantages would be irrelevant. But evidence indicates otherwise. No SR-71 has ever been lost to hostile action. Almost 1,000 attempts to shoot down the plane, many by North Korea, have been futile. Nor have advanced fighter aircraft been able to deter SR-71 missions. According to Soviet defector Viktor Belenko, Soviet MIG 25 aircraft were unable to challenge SR-71s as they flew parallel to Soviet borders--the MIGs could not reach them or catch them. And the MIGs’ missiles lacked the velocity to overtake the Blackbird if fired from behind, while their guidance systems could not adjust quickly enough to the high closing speed if fired head-on.

A budget flap is a poor excuse for a shortsighted decision to make the Blackbird extinct.