The SR-71 Blackbird, the legendary spy plane that flies faster than a bullet, was ordered out of retirement by Congress last year at a cost of about $62 million, but the plane still isn’t doing much spying.
Pentagon officials, who bitterly fought against reactivating the 1960s-era Lockheed Martin aircraft, say it uses obsolete technology at a staggering cost of $1 million a photo. And now that Congress has forced it on them, they have not sent it on a single foreign intelligence mission.
In fact, the Pentagon has rebuffed congressional pressure to deploy the SR-71 in Bosnia as the United States prepares to send 20,000 troops there as part of an international peacekeeping force. Pentagon sources conceded Tuesday that there are no current plans to use the spy plane in the Balkans.
Meanwhile, pilots at Edwards Air Force Base, near Lancaster, Calif., periodically fire up the massive ram-jet engines of the two SR-71s that were reactivated two months ago. About once a week they practice flying along the West Coast while they await orders from Washington for a foreign reconnaissance mission.
They may be waiting a long time. The SR-71 program remains at the center of a contentious political dispute that has pitted Congress against the Pentagon over intelligence policy.
SR-71 supporters in Congress are charging that the Pentagon is deliberately refusing to use the aircraft in such hot spots as Bosnia as part of a continuing effort to send it back into retirement.
“They are afraid that if they use it, it might work,” said a senior congressional defense expert who supports the aircraft’s use. “They might get good intelligence from the plane, and then they could never get rid of it.”
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee and a key SR-71 supporter, recently asked Defense Secretary William J. Perry whether he planned to put the SR-71 into action in Bosnia, according to congressional sources.
Perry told Stevens that the plane would be sent to Bosnia, the sources said. A spokesman for Perry said he could not comment on whether such a statement was made, though other officials said no plans exist for its deployment there.
Pentagon officials deny they are deliberately blocking a mission for the SR-71 as part of a rebellious effort to kill it.
“Nobody has asked for it,” said Dwight Williams, deputy director of the Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office, the organization that oversees the SR-71. “We have not seen anyplace where it would be effective. It is very costly to operate.”
Air Force officials say the old SR-71 is not well integrated with the rest of its modern equipment. For example, it is the only aircraft that burns raw kerosene. And its cameras, unlike those on the latest drones, take still photographs that cannot be relayed by video to ground stations immediately.
So far, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department have been relying on drone jets equipped with cameras for close-up photographs of Bosnia. Although several of those unmanned planes have crashed or have been shot down from the ground, the Pentagon still wants to continue their ambitious program to develop new generations of unmanned spy planes.
SR-71 supporters say the high-altitude spy plane would be far more effective than low-flying drone jets over Bosnia, where high mountain ridges and deep valleys often obscure the view.
The SR-71 flies 15 miles above the Earth at three times the speed of sound, roughly 2,500 m.p.h., allowing it to photograph vast sweeps of territory and look deep into valleys where military forces typically hide.
Unlike spy satellites, whose orbits are so well known to foreign militaries that they can camouflage sensitive targets when the satellites are due to fly overhead, the SR-71 can make surprise visits.
Despite the Air Force’s reluctance to deploy the aircraft, the military is still living up to its legal requirements to activate the planes and spend the money that Congress has put into its budget. Col. Bob Behler, wing commander for the SR-71s, said two crews are ready for missions and a third crew is in training. The pilots were drawn from veteran SR-71 pilots with hundreds of hours in the cockpit.
“They are like thoroughbred racing horses at the starting gate, ready to go,” Behler said. “The Air Staff and the Joint Chiefs will decide when that time is.”
The story behind the death and resurrection of the SR-71 has as much to do with congressional power politics as with the intelligence needs of the U.S. military.
Former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, a longtime foe of the SR-71 while he served in Congress, ordered the aircraft into retirement in 1990, arguing that the Pentagon was developing a secret drone jet that would perform the spy plane’s mission.
But that replacement was never completed, and the United States has lacked a reconnaissance aircraft since then that can fly directly over enemy territory without risk of being shot down.
After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, a Defense Department analysis found that while overall intelligence was good, the SR-71 could have contributed significantly to the allied war effort. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf also complained about intelligence gaps that might have been filled had the SR-71 been available.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who emerged as the driving force behind the congressional effort to reactivate the SR-71, believed that the United States needed to fill the gap that had so alarmed Schwarzkopf.
Byrd, with support from Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) and Stevens, arranged for $100 million to be authorized for fiscal 1995 to refurbish two SR-71s, which had been parked in the Mojave Desert. The funding also provided enough money to operate the SR-71s on at least one foreign intelligence mission for a full month.
The Air Force continued to oppose the proposal and even sent senior officers to Capitol Hill to provide a lengthy briefing against the plan for members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. But when lawmakers learned that Byrd was the main proponent, opposition in the Senate dissipated.
Ultimately, the Pentagon spent just $62 million of the $100 million earmarked for 1995, surrendering roughly $10 million of unspent funds at the end of the fiscal year and another $28 million as part of a budget-cutting exercise. It was one of the rare times the Pentagon has not spent money approved by Congress.
After the Republicans took control of Congress this year, Stevens became the SR-71’s most influential champion. Stevens arranged for $35 million in funding for fiscal 1996, which began Oct. 31, overcoming opposition by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Larry Combest (R-Tex.), who backed the Air Force and wanted to eliminate the money.
Byrd, along with others in Congress, may be growing impatient with the Pentagon’s apparent refusal to use the SR-71. In recent weeks, Byrd asked Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whether the SR-71 would be used in Bosnia.
Shalikashvili told Byrd that the decision to use the plane would be left up to Gen. George A. Joulwan, commander of the U.S. European Command and head of the Bosnia peacekeeping mission. But Pentagon officials said Tuesday that no request from the military or the CIA had come for the SR-71.
The Lockheed Skunk Works in Palmdale refurbished the two aircraft earlier this year under a $30-million Air Force contract, according to Garfield Thomas, vice president for reconnaissance.
“There is a reluctance by the Air Force to put the aircraft back into operational service,” said Thomas. “It would set a precedent, and they do not want to perpetuate funding the SR-71 year after year. I am not here to say it is right or wrong. But it’s our product, and we are proud of it.”
Though the SR-71 was developed 30 years ago, it remains the fastest aircraft in the world and is still considered one of the greatest engineering triumphs of the U.S. aerospace industry. Lockheed developed the plane at its Burbank Skunk Works in an era when engineers used slide rules.
No other military plane today is capable of sustaining Mach 1 supersonic flight, let alone Mach 3. Only the Russian SA-5 missile is theoretically capable of shooting it down, and then only if the plane flies directly over the missile launch site, experts say.