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Lockheed A-12: The CIAs Blackbird and other variants

Lockheed A-12: The CIAs Blackbird and other variants

The failure to produce wide-band suppression of the U-2’s RCS during phase one of Project Rainbow — as required by President Eisenhower — generated the need to design and build a totally new replacement aircraft. It would be interesting to speculate what an eventual U-2 replacement aircraft would have looked like if the RCS conundrum had been solved back in the late 1950s!

Project Oxcart’s contribution should therefore be evaluated from two perspectives, namely execution of the strategic reconnaissance-gathering mission whilst operated by the CIA and as an aviation accomplishment.

As a strategic reconnaissance-gathering platform, Oxcart’s overall contribution to the CIA’s intelligence database was probably negligible compared to that made by other assets, such as the U-2 and satellites. However, this is not a fault of the aircraft per se, since it was US policymakers that decided not to employ the aircraft in the role for which it had originally been designed. The simple fact of the matter is that manned overflight of the Soviet Union following the May 1, 1960 U-2 shoot-down became politically unacceptable, so to a degree Oxcart became “an advanced anachronism.”

Frank Murray (right) is pictured here receiving the coveted CIA Star for Valor, with his wife Stella and Adm Rufus Taylor (Deputy Director of the CIA). The presentation took place in Col “Slip” Slater’s conference room of the Headquarters building at Area 51. (Roadrunners Internationale)

Some commentators have made operational cost comparisons between Oxcart and the U-2, but this is disingenuous. Yes, the U-2 was much cheaper to operate; however, as demonstrated over both the USSR and Cuba, the U-2 was vulnerable to interception by SA-2s and was therefore incapable of executing its mission in such an environment. This was not the case with Oxcart, as proven during Black Shield — it was able to complete its mission despite the presence of SA-2s.

During Black Shield, Oxcart provided US decision-makers with high-resolution, area PHOTINT coverage, proving there were no surface-to-surface missiles in North Vietnam. Its coverage of North Korea demonstrated that they were not planning some form of follow-up military action after seizing USS Pueblo. Black Shield also acquired timely invaluable PHOTINT of North Vietnam’s air defense network, and other war-related targets, enabling US military commanders to plan more effective bombing routes, which inevitably resulted in US lives being saved. But in so doing it could be argued that Oxcart was in effect being used as a tactical collection platform in a conventional military conflict — an activity that fell completely outside the CIA’s modus operandi.

However, when it comes to evaluating the A-12 or for that matter the YF-12 or latterly, the SR-71 in terms of aerospace design and performance accomplishments, the “Blackbird” family are without equal. More than 50 years after the first A-12 flight, they remain the fastest, highest-flying jet-powered aircraft ever built. Clarence “Kelly” Johnson and his team of Skunk Works aerodynamicists, thermodynamicists, electrical engineers, and physicists produced unrivaled innovations in aerodynamic design and metallurgy; and when it came to RCS suppression, they helped define the very foundations upon which future stealth research was based. Pratt & Whitney produced the unique, bleed bypass engine, whilst the Perkin-Elmer’s Type I camera produced image resolution of previously unheard of clarity.

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