The SR-71 Blackbird

The CIA A-12 Blackbird Program


The A-12 started out as an USAF interceptor to replace the cancelled F-108A Rapier. In October 1962, CIA authorized the Skunk Works to study the feasibility of modifying the A-12 to carry and deploy a reconnaissance drone for unmanned overflight of denied areas. The project was codenamed TAGBOARD.

7 Mar 2018

A-12 Blackbird: A Futile Fight for Survival

A-12 Blackbird: A Futile Fight for Survival

Author: SR Admin  /  Categories: A-12 History  /  Rate this article:

With the OXCART program cancelled, the A-12s flew back to the United States and were placed in storage.

Two major ironies run through the history of the A-12. One is that it was never used for it intended purpose of overflying the Soviet Union to collect strategic intelligence on Moscow’s nuclear weapons capabilities, and instead was deployed as a tactical collection platform in a conventional military conflict. The other is that just as the A‑12 was about to be declared operationally ready, US policymakers had decided to replace it with the Air Force’s OXCART reconnaissance variant, the SR-71. The most advanced aircraft ever built was decommissioned after less than a year in service, not from any shortcomings in its design but because of fiscal pressures and competition between the reconnaissance programs of CIA and the Air Force.

The first step in the A-12’s phase-out came in November 1965, when the Bureau of the Budget (BOB) expressed concern about the costs of the two programs. It questioned both the total number of aircraft required for the combined fleets and the need for a separate CIA unit. Among several alternatives, BOB recommended closing down the A-12 program by September 1966 and halting acquisition of more SR-71s. It asked CIA and the Pentagon to explore the options. A senior OXCART manager summed up CIA’s position: the BOB proposal would “deny the United States Government a non-military capability to conduct aerial reconnaissance of denied areas in the world in the years ahead.” Secretary of Defense McNamara rejected the BOB recommendation, probably because the SR-71 would not be mission ready by that date. [1]

Nothing more happened on the matter until June 1966, when a study group that BOB proposed was set up to look at ways to reduce expenses in the OXCART program. The group, which included representatives of BOB, CIA, and the Pentagon, identified three alternative courses: continue both fleets at current levels; mothball all A-12s while sharing SR-71s between CIA and the Strategic Air Command (SAC); or—assuming the SR-71 was available by then—end the A-12 program in January 1968 and assign all missions to the Air Force fleet. The group noted that for the next several years, both aircraft would remain uniquely capable of conducting tactical reconnaissance missions during periods of international tension and hostilities but that toward the end of the decade certain satellites and drones could supplant them. [2]

On 12 December 1966—more than five months before Article 131 would fly the A-12’s first operational mission—four senior US officials met to consider the options. Over DCI Helms’s objections, Deputy Defense Secretary Cyrus Vance, BOB Director Charles Schultze, and presidential scientific advisor Donald Hornig decided on the third course. The United States would end the A-12 program.

Hoping in some way to keep a supersonic reconnaissance capability for the Agency, Helms then asked that the SR-71s be shared between CIA and the Air Force. After hearing that the SR-71 most likely would not be ready by the time the A-12s were taken out of service and that its performance characteristics made it more vulnerable than the CIA aircraft, the DCI again urged continuation of the A‑12 program. In late December, however, President Johnson chose to close it down by 1 January 1968.[3]

CIA now had to develop a plan for decommissioning the A-12. Project managers informed Vance on 10 January that four aircraft would be placed in storage in June 1967, two more by December, and the last four by the end of January 1968. (The sequencing changed later on.) On the personnel side, over 2,000 government and contractor employees, including 420 from CIA and the Air Force, would also have to be reassigned or dismissed. In May, Vance directed that the SR-71 take over the contingency responsibility for Cuban overflights as of 1 July and that it handle all Southeast Asia missions by 1 December. In the meantime, the A-12 detachment was to maintain its capability to deploy to East Asia in 15 days and over Cuba in seven. [4]

All this planning took place before the A-12 had flown a single mission. Once those began in May 1967 and produced very useful intelligence, and with the SR-71 not ready yet, high-level US officials—notably the president’s national security adviser, the PFIAB, and the president’s Scientific Advisory Committee—and some members of Congress started having reservations about stopping the CIA program. Administration officials considered extending the A‑12’s operational mission beyond the end of the year. Helms pressed the Pentagon for a decision soon because maintenance and readiness would suffer with further delay, but the administration took no immediate action. [5]

One way to help decide whether to keep one or both aircraft was to determine which performed better. CIA contended that the A-12 did because it flew higher and faster and had superior cameras. The Air Force countered that the SR-71 was preferable for intelligence purposes because it had three different cameras—for area search, spotting, and mapping—and carried sensors the A-12 did not at the time—infrared detectors, side-looking airborne radar, and ELINT-collection devices needed for its mission of post-nuclear-strike reconnaissance.

To resolve the question, the aircraft competed one-on-one in a flyoff codenamed NICE GIRL. Between 20 October and 3 November 1967, A-12s and SR‑71s flew three identical routes along the Mississippi River about one hour apart with their collection systems on. Representatives from CIA, the National Photographic Interpretation Center, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and other military intelligence organizations evaluated the data collected. The results were inconclusive. The A-12’s camera worked better—it had a wider swath and higher resolution—but the SR-71 collected types of intelligence the CIA aircraft could not, although not yet of very good quality. [6]However, some of its sensors would have to be removed to make room for ECM gear—a salient point now that North Vietnam had shot at two BLACK SHIELD aircraft.

Because of its track record and continued delays with the SR-71, the A-12 won a temporary reprieve in late November 1967 when the Johnson administration decided to keep both fleets temporarily. A month later, the Pentagon announced that five A-12s would be kept operational through 30 June 1968 while the SR-71 was prepared to begin missions over North Vietnam “as rapidly as ECM implementation and other program considerations will permit.”

With expenditures of the Vietnam War rising steadily, US policymakers revisited the question. Another study of the subject was completed in the spring of 1968. It came up with new scenarios involving combinations of closures, transfers, and decommissioning, along with the Air Force takeover and status quo options. Helms did not bend and argued for the last, underscoring the importance of a covert reconnaissance capability under civilian management. [7]

On 16 May 1968, however, the new secretary of defense, Clark Clifford, reaffirmed the original decision to end the A-12 program and mothball the aircraft. The president concurred five days later. The A-12 sortie on 8 May would be its last. Agency personnel at Kadena started packing up and preparing to return home. Project headquarters designated 8 June as the earliest date for phasing out all the aircraft. Those at the test site were placed in storage in a hangar at Palmdale, California, and those at Kadena were readied for flights back.

The second pilot fatality in the program occurred during this drawdown. On 4 June 1968 Jack Weeks was in Article 129 on a checkout flight after an engine change for the trip to the United States. He was last heard from 520 miles east of Manila. No trace of the plane was found, and an investigation turned up no clue about the cause of the crash. Signals received about a half hour into the flight from the onboard BIRDWATCHER monitoring system indicated engine trouble; a catastrophic failure was the most likely explanation.[8]

The other two A-12s left Okinawa on 8 and 19 June. Frank Murray made the final flight of an A‑12, in Article 131, on 21 June from the Nevada test facility to the California storage site. The only major components of the aircraft that could be salvaged for its successor were the J58 engines. The Perkin-Elmer Type I’s were too big to fit in the SR-71’s camera bay.

On 26 June, the A-12 operational pilots—Ken Collins, Jack Layton, Frank Murray, Dennis Sullivan, Mele Vojvodich, and Jack Weeks (posthumously)—were awarded the CIA Intelligence Star for valor. Other members of the 1129th SAS, nicknamed the Roadrunners, received awards as well. The unit’s commander, Col. Slater, and his deputy, Col. Maynard “Am” Amundson, were given the Air Force Legion of Merit, and the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award was presented to all the detachment’s members. The pilots’ wives attended the ceremony and learned for the first time what their husbands really had been doing for the past several years. Kelly Johnson, a guest speaker at the event, gave a moving address in which he lamented the demise of the enterprise that represented his pinnacle accomplishment as Lockheed’s most creative aeronautical engineer. Two days earlier, he had written that “[i]t’s a bleak end for a program that has been overall as successful as this." [9]

Assessing the A-12’s Contribution

The value of the A-12 must be determined by two standards: aviation and intelligence. In the first instance, the OXCART program must be judged a categorical success. It produced what it was intended to: a reconnaissance aircraft that could fly at unprecedented speeds and heights for unequaled ranges, and was essentially invulnerable to enemy attack. OXCART represented a pioneering accomplishment in aeronautical engineering. Well over 40 years after it first flew, the A-12’s maximum speed and altitude have not been equaled by a piloted operational jet aircraft. The exceptionally demanding design requirements for speed, altitude, and stealth produced innovations in aerodynamic design, engine performance, cameras, metallurgy, use of nonmetallic materials, ECMs, RCS suppression, and life support systems that were used for years after and helped lay the foundation for future stealth research. Finally, no A-12 or its operational successor, the SR-71, was shot down despite hundreds of attempts while they conducted nearly 3,600 operational missions over nearly a quarter century.

As an intelligence collector, the A-12’s record is commendable but less striking, although not due to anything about the aircraft itself. US policymakers decided not to use the A-12 for its original purpose. The technological breakthroughs that made the aircraft possible took longer than expected, and between the time Lockheed conceived the idea of the OXCART and the time the aircraft was operationally ready, the international and technological situation had changed. The U-2 shootdown in May 1960 made overflights of the Soviet Union politically unfeasible, and by the early 1960s spy satellites were collecting the required information on Soviet military developments.

US leaders considered use of the A-12 to collect strategic intelligence on the PRC but chose to rely principally on satellites. In the end, the A-12 contributed little to the Agency’s strategic intelligence mission. In addition, the complexities of running A‑12 sorties—planning routes, mobilizing several hundred personnel, deploying fuel and tankers, and programming guidance systems—made the aircraft very costly to operate and less useful as a quick-response platform than the U-2, which remained in service despite the presence of its replacement.

When it did fly intelligence missions, however, the A-12 performed superbly. During BLACK SHIELD the A-12 acquired timely and usable photography of North Vietnam’s air defense network, key military and economic targets, and war-related activities that enabled US military commanders to plan more effective bombing routes while keeping US pilots farther out of harm’s way. Analysis of A-12 photography quickly enabled the US government to determine that North Vietnam had no SSMs, dispelling a growing concern that a serious escalation of the war was imminent. And during the tense time after the Pueblo seizure, A-12 missions over North Korea allayed US fears that Pyongyang was preparing for military action in the wake of the incident.

As a tactical intelligence collector, the A-12 had a near-perfect record, but it fell victim to budgetary pressures and interdepartmental differences over how best to use the expensive aerial reconnaissance assets of the United States. As an Agency history of overhead reconnaissance observed, “[t]he most advanced aircraft of the 20th century had become an anachronism before it was ever used operationally."[10] Yet the two men most responsible for bringing the A‑12 into existence and making it work, the visionary engineer Kelly Johnson and the realist technocrat Richard Bissell, anticipated this outcome. In his project log in 1967, Johnson wrote:

I think back to 1959, before we started this airplane, to discussions with Dick Bissell where we seriously considered the problem of whether there would be one more round of aircraft before the satellites took over. We jointly agreed there would be just one round, and not two. That seems to have been a very accurate evaluation. [11]


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  • SourceThe CIA Library Center for Advanced Intelligence