This was originally posted on Skunk Works on 18 October 1995 by Art Hanley it is 4700 words and 25.0K total. Enjoy.

-John Stone

Fall and Rise of the Blackbird

Since there's been a lot of discussion lately about bringing back the SR-71, I thought I'd throw the following in for your consideration. It all based on open sources, conversations with people involved with the program and some personal experience. Don't take anything in it as gospel, but I hope this rather lengthy (4,300 words or so) thing proves interesting. Keep in mind that all of the mind-numbing prose that follows is just me, private citizen, so don't blame anyone else. This has NOTHING to do with where I work.

Why the Blackbird Went Away

The most common official reasons given were that getting too old to maintain and/or it was too expensive. Another reason was that satellites could do it all. A third reason that was never stated officially, but was widely believed, was that the Blackbird was being retired because a superior replacement was entering service ("Aurora"?). At least two of those reasons don't hold up.

The SR-71 structurally at the time of its retirement was not suffering from any fatigue problems. In fact, because of the heating/cooling it went through on each sortie, the airframe was actually stronger than it had ever been. The SR-71 is the only USAF jet to see extended service that never suffered from cracking. Partswise, except for the actual airframe itself, parts for the aircraft were in good supply. There were more than enough of many components (including engines) in storage to last as far out as you wanted to project. In addition to also being able to cannibalize retired or broken Blackbirds, many of the remaining needed parts and supplies could be fabricated. We couldn't rework titanium, but we could manufacture many parts again. We couldn't build new SR-71s or major structures because Robert McNamara, in one of his series of colossally stupid moves, ordered to tooling destroyed in the late 1960s. Logisticswise, the plane was in good shape. In fact, there are still hundreds of millions of dollars of parts, already paid for, in stock

Regarding cost, the SR was not cheap, but not out of line for a plane of its era, especially when you consider its unique mission. We know that the cost of running the SR fleet in the 1980s was $260 million annually. This included a much larger fleet of SRs flying many more missions as well as a large portion of the operation of Beale AFB being charged to the SR program, two detachments of two SRs each, tanker support and the USAF's enormous overhead. For comparison purposes, open literature puts the cost of one Titan launch at $250 million (cited when a Titan blew up on launch) to $300 million cited elsewhere in the same period. ABC News (consider the source) has stated that the cost of a single recon. satellite is about $1 billion (I don't know if that includes launch costs). I'm NOT saying that SR-71s can replace satellites, by the way, more on that later. Bogus comparisons have been made about the hourly cost of flying an SR. It ain't cheap, but it ain't the cost of "15-20" F-15s, that Gen. Welch said a few years back when he was killing the SRs. Estimates from some knowledgeable sources say it cost $50,000 an hour to fly the SR on a routine basis.

It also wasn't a lack of work that sent the Blackbirds into retirement, there were far more requests for SR-71 time than there were aircraft to fly the missions.

The SR-71 was retired for a much more mundane reason: It wasn't a very popular plane with the people in power.

The SR-71 was assigned to SAC. SAC, though, didn't really see the plane as contributing to SAC's mission (dropping bombs) or image, and it had always been somewhat of an akward fit. It also saw the SR-71 as competing for tanker assets. Further, unlike its various C-135 mods and the U-2, the SR-71 couldn't loiter, nor did anyone ever promise that it could (although with some of its planned upgrades it could perform more functions than it was then doing). There are numbers of documented cases that show, quite simply, SAC didn't want the airplane. In addition, here was a plane that couldn't bomb or shoot down anything, yet what was the most sought-after aircraft for airshows and most spectacular in the general public's eye? The SR-71. This didn't endear the plane to a lot of people. Any system needs a patron, and Senior Crown wasn't too fortunate in this area.

USAF did have one legitimate complaint against the aircraft. The biggest users of the SR-71 were the CIA, for obvious reasons, State and the Navy. The Navy had for years operated what was essentially a Mach 2, shorter legged SR-71, the RA-5C. When the Vigilante was retired, the Navy suffered a severe loss of recon capability. Although the F-14 provides recon capability with its TARPS system, that system has been held back while there are repeated attempts to give the Navy's Designated Wonderplane, the F/A-18, to take over the recon. mission. As a result, the Navy has been an enthusiastic proponent of the SR-71 for recon as well as defense exercises. It is quite familiar with what a rapidly responding asset like the SR-71 could do, even when you had to go very high up to get the aircraft. USAF didn't choose to use most of the kind of intelligence the SR could gather. However, funding for the SR-71 came out of USAF's budget, where it competed with other programs USAF wanted more. There had been proposals to treat the SR as a national asset and fund it accordingly, but these moves were blocked at various levels. There was also limited talk of the USN funding the program, but this also went nowhere. I don't know any of the details, but one can surmise one hurdle: If you're the Navy are you going to fund an aircraft that isn't yours? If you're USAF, you may not want the plane, but there's no way you're going to let anyone paint "Navy" on the side of:


This certainly wasn't a prime reason, but I'll bet it figured in there.

The SR-71 also was not liked by many of the "overhead" or satellite people at the NRO and elsewhere who thought satellites were the best for everything. They considered the SR-71 to be a competitive, rather than complementary system. By their very nature, satellite successes (and failures) tended to be very hush-hush and here was the SR-71 getting the "glory". Further there was the oft stated opinion by many that satellites could do anything needed better than anything else. While they are marvelous devices, this has never been true. The SR-71 flying around tended to gainsay the omnipotent image of satellites.

In the 1980s, opposition to the SR operations got stronger in a number of areas. Already planned sensor and maintainability upgrades were cancelled, and then because the SR couldn't perform the function an upgrade was supposed to do, this was given as a reason why the SR wasn't capable enough. To cite some examples, much was made of the fact that the SR-71 couldn't downlink its data to commanders in the filed and had to return to base for its results to be processed. Datalink for the SR-71 was developed over 15 years ago, and in fact was flight tested on the SR-71 in 1980. USAF ordered that the system not be installed on the SR-71, although it could be installed on the TR-1. The reactivated SR-71s will have the system, by the way. Another example was the laser communications system for the SR-71. This would have allowed over-the-horizon secure data communication with field commanders via satellite. It reached the prototype stage and was ordered killed. When reports from the field and their own studies indicated that SAC recon. assets were overtasked, options to bring a few more SRs back to operational status were quietly removed from planning document as they made their way up the chain of command. Electro-optical sensor additions were zeroed out. Personnel rotation policies also were used against the SR. Because of its unique nature, the SR required service personnel that had a higher level of experience than other aircraft. USAF recognized this for many years and didn't rotate support personnel as often. In the 1980s, this policy changed and maintenance personnel went on the normal USAF rotation, lowering the experience level and increasing the mmh/fh ratio, which was then trumpeted as "proof" that the SR was becoming less maintainable. There were also options explored to further reduce the annual cost of the SR fleet, down to around $150 million annually. These would have involved greater use of contractor personnel, feasible on such a specialized, limited quantity aircraft, but were turned down as was the plan to permanently base (instead of operating as a Detachment) two SRs in England.

The most damaging thing, though, that happened was a T-39 crash in April, 1985. General Jerry O' Malley was aboard, on his way to an official speaking engagement. He understood the nature of the SR-71 and its unique requirements and benefits. He was likely to become the Air Force Chief of Staff in 1986, and possibly even Chairman of the Joint Chiefs after that. When he was killed, Gen Welch went on to become chairman, and he was known as being hostile to the SR-71. This was when the SR-71's fate was sealed, although it took three more years to die.

The SR-71 had lost its constituency inside the Beltway, and it was just a matter of time before it was killed. This isn't unique to the Air Force. I can think examples of the same kind of thing happening in the Army and the Navy, including some going on right now. Finally, Secretary of Defense Cheney, who didn't like the plane when he was a Congressman, was persuaded to kill the SR-71, despite Congress' willingness to continue funding the program.

The actual retirement of the SR-71 demonstrated its unpopularity with some at the top. Usually, when a major aircraft goes out of service, there are very high ranking officials present and numerous tributes are offered to the aircraft. At the retirement of the SR-71, many observers noted the absence of the usual highest rank of military and government officials at the ceremony. It's well known that the SR-71 delivered to the Smithsonian established new speed records, as the Smithsonian requested. What isn't well known is that the Air Force initially refused the request for a record flight, and in fact kept trying to block it up until the last minute. It took the personal intervention of Sen. John Glenn to permit the record flight to take place. Even then, the crew was instructed to fly a conservative by-the-book profile, which was unnecessary considering that this was to be the aircraft's last flight ever. After the arrival of 17972 at Dulles, USAF made no effort to help the Smithsonian in its preservation and it was left to deteriorate in the D.C. weather. The bird is now in a climate-controlled hangar, but that hangar was donated by the hangar manufacturer. One would expect that USAF would have pushed the PR value of this flight for all it was worth, but if you review the publicity of the time, you'll find it didn't come from there.

Why It Came Back

Naturally, Blackbird supporters said this all was a big mistake, but it seemed to be a moot point and would always remain a "What If?". Ironically, less than a year after the record flight it became apparent just how wrong this decision was. When Desert Shield began, Gen. Schwarzkopf was reported to have asked for the SR-71 very early on (some say it was the first thing he asked for, but I can't confirm this). It is known that very soon after Saddam moved into Kuwait, USAF approached Lockheed and asked how long it would take to restore SR-71 operations. Lockheed's response was that depending on the priority and if USAF could supply the sensor packages (USAF had them and even Lockheed didn't know where they were), the first one could be operational in 14 days and the next one around thirty days after that (remember, they hadn't been out of service that long at this point). There was no response for a number of weeks and then Lockheed was directed to forget the whole thing. Years later, to separate sources put that direction as coming form the Secretary of Defense's office. Let's face it, the return of the SR at that point would have been very embarrassing to some high ranking people!

The SR would have had a major impact in the war. In addition to being able to fly anywhere over Iraq with relative impunity at any time of the day (not just at night like the F-117s) and providing both targeting data and post-strike intelligence, it could have monitored aircraft and ship movement and would have made the Scud hunts much more successful. Airpower did not do very well against the Scuds. This was primarily due to problems with targeting. Comments: Satellites were ineffective against the mobile Scuds. USAF had no real tactical air reconnaissance per se, and the Navy was effectively limited to TARPS equipped F-14s, which was restricted in capability as described above. If the SR with datalink could have been available, it had the sensors to locate Scuds and then transmit back the data before the Scuds could move. Even without the datalink, the SR-71s great speed would permit it surprise Scud batteries before they could cover up or move. It could then speed back to Saudi Arabia while a strike group was launched to head into the war zone. The SR could be on the ground and a rough interpretation could be done and data transmitted to the strike group before it got to the target area. This would have been very effective. As it is, the best locating of Scuds was not done by airborne intel, but by special ops forces placed in Iraq (now That would take stones!).

Although there have been many rumors about super new systems that would take over from the SR, there seem to have been questions raised by those with stratospheric level clearances that in effect asked, "Where's the beef"? Apparently, these wonder systems either haven't delivered or are non-existent. One system, of course is the legendary "Aurora". Another is said to have been a large, stealthy subsonic drone, like the Tier 3. These are rumored to have failed, or been canceled (remember what's been happening to the Defense budget these last three years). leaving a gaping hole in our intel gathering capabilities. This, by the way, is a confirmation of the hostility felt toward the Blackbird in the late 1980s. Even if these systems did exist, they weren't ready when the SR-71 was pushed out. One would think that an existing, highly successful system wouldn't be dumped until the replacement was operational, if the new system was the real reason for the retirement. With this gap, and the limitations of satellites for specific tasks, the move began to bring back the Blackbird.

The environment has also changed somewhat. For one thing, a number of people at the top have moved on. The present pinnacle of power did not have a personal hand in the retirement decision and consequently would not be embarrassed by the SR's return. Additionally, Congress is now funding the SR-71 separately, so it doesn't compete with a lot of pet projects. Further, the Airborne Reconnaissance Office has a vested interest in airborne systems, so suddenly there's a constituency that sees the SR-71 as advantageous (for the present) to its position. In addition, the SR is going to be operated more in a tactical role, so it isn't as threatening to satellites. Remember, the SR-71 program has never said it could do the job of satellites, just that there are some things it does better than satellites.

Plus, the SR-71 fleet (what's left of it) is cheap. The planes are bought and paid for. There are lots of spare parts. And, many thanks to NASA, there are still people who know how to fly it. The contractor is not getting filthy rich reactivating them. The original gov't estimate for restoration, updating and initial operation was $100 million. It was then found that $72.5 million would cover it, and Lockheed ended up giving a good portion of that back. In fact, they were willing to commit (as long as the decision was made while the restoration team is still together), to bringing back another SR-71 for $3 million. Estimated operational costs for FY 96 are $40 million plus another $5 million for procurement, and that's about what it'll cost in upcoming years, or maybe somewhat less. These costs do not include operational tanker support, I believe. On the other hand, the planes will be contractor maintained this time and Lockheed has already demonstrated that on a specialized plane such as this they can maintain the bird for substantially less than the Air Force can, so there should be savings there.

SR-71 and Satellites

The SR can not do a lot of things satellites can do. It's also more provocative because it operates in the atmosphere and in other's airspace. Without boring everybody with a long comparison of the relative advantages of the two systems, I'd like to list some of the SR-71's features that make it worthwhile complementing satellites on certain missions. Also, keep in mind that the mission planed for the restored SR-71s are more of a tactical nature than before.

A satellite's orbit is fixed. People know when it's coming. if the area you need examined is not under the satellite at the time you need it, you're out of luck. The orbit can be changed to a certain degree, but this requires the expenditure of some of the limited amount of onboard propellant which is also needed for station keeping. I don't know who has the authority to change a satellite's orbit, but it's got to be someone way up there. The SR-71 can be more responsive to a fluid situation and also to changing weather (it is said that that we never did get good satellite imagery of the Falklands.) The SR-71 can also be sent to a trouble spot easier than a satellite if we don't already have a satellite covering the area of interest. Despite what we'd like, we can't just poop up a satellite in a few hours whenever we'd like. One of the new things about the way it appears the SRs will be operated is that it will no longer take National Authority approval for every specific tasking and mission like it did in the past (tactical, again).

The direct per-hour cost of operating the SR-71 is naturally higher. A satellite isn't free, though. The cost of running those tracking stations and control centers isn't zero, even when you're not doing anything. With a SR-71, if you aren't doing anything with it at the moment you park it. Also, it cost a Lot of money to put a satellite in orbit. Launch costs alone for one satellite are more than the expected budget for the restored SR-71 fleet through the year 2001.

Although there hasn't been any discussion of doing so at the present time, you can update the sensors in the SR-71. If you don't like what's in your orbiter, you've got to spend the cash to put another one up there. Finally, if a relatively minor thruster or some such breaks on a satellite, you've got to crank up a billion or so to put another one up, and if there isn't a spare already available, you're in a world of hurt.

Let me reiterate, there are lots of things you can do with a satellite you can't do with the SR-71. They're just out of the scope of this discussion.

SR-71 and UAVs

Presently, there isn't much conflict between these two camps because the big UAVs aren't here yet. A case can be made that the Tier 2 plus and Tier 3 minus may be the way to go, but they're years away from being operational, and what do we do in the meantime? Also, the recent history of UAVs surviving the Washington battlefield is not that encouraging. There are a number of major recent UAV programs that made in all the way to the flying hardware stage only to find that the U.S. lost interest in them and they faded away. Stealth is wonderful, but their survivability is based on, as Monty Python puts it, "the art of not being seen". If these two vehicles are detected, they are relatively easy to knock down. As far as is known, with one possible US exception, there is no known system currently operational that can reliably bring down a SR-71 at cruise. We've sent five predators to Bosnia since June, and they've already shot down two of them. A UAV is much more covert, but if you don't care if the other guys know you're overhead, this isn't that big a feature. Don't forget, the SR-71 is very fast, which shouldn't be discounted in a fluid situation.

It'll be very interesting to see if the UAV people develop an animosity towards the SR-71 if they see it as a threat to their program in a few years--they shouldn't. But then, even Aviation Week is saying that these new systems must be able to show that they can beat the SR-71 to justify their existence (I don't agree, both platforms offer capabilities the other doesn't).

SR-71 and the Future

Right now, the plan is to operate the aircraft until 2001, but of course plans change. Although at present only two SRs are being reactivated, there are two more that have been preserved for reactivation. A fleet of four SR-71s (five if they borrow 17980 from NASA on occasion) is a very potent tactical reconnaissance asset.

At least initially, the sensors kits available for the birds are reportedly two upgraded Loral Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar Systems (ASARS 1); two Mc Donnell Douglas technical objective cameras and three ITEK wide angle high resolution optical bar cameras. There is an AIL electronics intelligence system still in storage, but it isn't presently scheduled to be reactivated, although there is a possibility it'll be brought up in 1996. The self protection radar warning system is still active. A Unisys datalink system is to be fitted. I'm not aware of plans to add the electro-optical sensors that were denied in the '80s, but then I doubt if any of the program people were planning to consult with me, anyway. I also don't know if some of the sensors being developed for the Tier II Plus/Tier III minus could be carried, but it would be a way to get more bang for the buck.

Although the SR-71 flies very high and very fast, it still uses ECM. Its previous very effective ECM system is probably still existent but hasn't been updated in a long while and some could argue that to do so might be prohibitively expensive for such a small fleet. Fortunately there is an alternative. Sitting in a warehouse gathering dust are more than 50 Advanced Self Protection Jammers (ASPJ). The ASPJ is the most effective jammer anyone has ever built to be carried by a non-dedicated ECM aircraft. The EA-6B ADVCAP would have been more capable, but that's a dedicated SEAD aircraft, and besides it's been cancelled. ASPJ would be more than able to handle the SR's needs for the next five years in my opinion. ASPJ was a controversial system and made some enemies in Washington so production was terminated. However, the taxpayers have already paid for the systems and they're available, so why not use them? I'm not saying this is happening or will happen. Frankly I don't think it will, because to do so would tick off those who had it cancelled, but there's always hope.

Operating in its tactical role, the SR doesn't really compete with anybody at the present time. There is, of course, opposition. One Congressman has proposed taking the money being used for the Blackbird and spending it on new high speed UAVs. The fact that such UAVs don't seem to exist yet, and what to do in the interim until they do hasn't been addressed.

The build decision for Tier III Minus/Tier II Plus is scheduled for around 1999. In 1998-99 there are to be joint exercises involving the two Tier UAVs and the U-2. Significantly, present plans do not include the SR-71 in those exercises. As the end of the decade approaches, the SR-71 May (emphasis on "may") be perceived as a threat to upcoming systems and pressure will build to put them "back to sleep". Heck! The two Tier programs may end up sniping at each other if funding really looks tight! The October 16 Aviation Week, in an excellent editorial, points out that upcoming UAVs should be compared with what we can do with our existing SR-71s. An example might be which kind of system would be more effective in Bosnia? A stealth system that they hopefully don't realize is there and can loiter? Or, one that gets there and back much sooner, can't loiter for long, they may or may not know something's up there but even if they do there's nothing they can do about it?

Editorial Comment (you knew there had to be one!)

We've been given a second chance for now to overcome what many (including me) feel was a big mistake. That doesn't happen to often. If more cost effective mission-capable systems than the SR-71 show up in a few years, it should definitely be retired again. If it is the best asset for its job for the indefinite future, then it should be retained and the upcoming programs should be rethought. If a mix of the two is the best, hopefully we'll have the wisdom to act accordingly rather than succumb to in-fighting. At this point it's too early to tell, but we should start looking. We should use these next few years to figure out what's best to do with our, to use Aviation Week's phrase, "2,000 mph non-loitering intelligence vacuum cleaner".

Art "It's From Home" Hanley

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