UPDATED 25 June 2010

Goodbye Air Reconnaissance: How Fighter jock ego killed the world's fastest spy plane


Which world military has retired the world's fastest reconnaissance jet, mothballed the world's most powerful shore bombardment battleships, ignored the world's greatest cross-country mobile, amphibious tracked armored fighting vehicles and abandoned the world's fastest seaplane bomber?

Give up?

Why its the post-WWII U.S. military who has the greatest need for global reconnaissance, saturation shore bombardment, followed by ground forces in air-transportable AFVs backed by heavy bombers for decisive ground maneuver but instead has had a different "agenda" then world-wide combat effectiveness.

That agenda is power and ego following an avant garde mantra of expensive mental flimsy gadgets over the robust and the physical (Spinney's "Death Spiral"). Good weapons systems die when they are not protected by their own bureaucracy with power and money populated by egotists that will fight for their system and style of warfare. Consider the above, the patrol/seaplane, battleship, CAS, air recon and cavalry communities have and continue to lack the power to stop the egotists running other factions within their services from shutting them down.

When altitude was not enough: Gary Powers' U-2 shootdown gives birth to the SR-71


Accurate intelligence about the enemy is the foundation for all military operations. During WWII, despite having extensive air and ground recon capabilities, we often did not know where the enemy was and had to find him via trial and error costing in thousands of lives. With the nuclear bomb able to destroy large areas, all that was needed was verification of where to aim nuclear missile and bomber missions. The Soviet Union had a vast air defense system of interceptors to shoot down recon aircraft so America developed a high-altitude jet glider, the U-2 to fly at altitudes where they could not be intercepted. For several years U-2s successfully overflew Russia without incident, taking photos so America could target the Soviet Union with her nuclear weapons and keep her at bay.

However, in 1960 a U-2 flown by CIA contract pilot, Frances Gary Powers was shot down over Russia by a SA-2 missile though its still debated if his plane wasn't sabotaged so it couldn't achieve high altitude safety. Regardless, the day of altitude being enough of a protection against a sophisticated enemy air defense system was over.

The U.S. was already developing a high altitude, Mach 3 plus aircraft in its A-12 design which became the YF-12A interceptor and the SR-71 reconnaissance plane.

When success was not enough: SR-71 makes USAF fighter and bomber jocks 2nd best

From 1964 to 1990, the SR-71 flew all over the world to include communist Russia, Red China and the middle east without interception, it was simply too fast and radar "stealthy". With a large payload bomb-bay of cameras and sensors taking overhead and oblique angle imagery, the SR-71 manned by two aircrewmen literally mapped in detail the enemy landscape.

However, this is where the problems came in. The U.S. military is populated by weak ego people who join to do certain tasks and then take on "airs" of identity connected to that task. They are not adult human beings that just happen to fly a supersonic jet for a living, they ARE "fighter pilots" or "bomber pilots" etc. as part of pecking order of juvenile ego. The honor of operating such machines does not humble them, it goes to their head and makes them think they are better than the American citizen that works a 40 hour work week busting his knuckles so these machines exist and are fuelled. In the world of aviation, the SR-71 was and still is, the fastest aircraft on earth short of the Space Shuttle coming in from space. The USAF run by these egotists, primarily fighter and bomber jocks whose aircraft clean can barely fly twice the speed of sound, and with bombs are subsonic hate and detest the SR-71. Thus, one day when these people command the entire Air Force, they retired the SR-71. Now those that fly the F-15 Eagle (a fine aircraft regardless) can say they are the fastest and kings with the most "right stuff".

On the superb SR-71 web site by John Stone, an article by Art Hanley "The Rise and fall of the BlackBird" concludes:

"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."

In retrospect, perhaps the civilian CIA should have continued to operate the SR-71s since they would not be part of the USAF's BS fighter pilot ego "pecking order" and would see themselves as intelligence gatherers. Tragically, the SR-71s were gone when America faced off against Saddam Hussein's Iraq and with only aging RF-4 recon aircraft, the Republican Guard escaped.

Hanley elaborates:

"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 U.S. Congress, seeing this shortfall, ordered the USAF to restore the SR71s to flight status but like the Navy resenting the Iowa Class battleships for their effectiveness, the AF fighter pilot "mafia" resented the SR-71's physical speed and recon collection effectiveness. The AF dragged its feet and got anti-military capability President Bill Clinton to end the SR-71's service life for the time being.

Notice that anything in DoD that is robust and physically capable and a little old, except for the B-52, is hated and despised in favor of something newer, flimsy, uses gadgets, spends lots of money to increase budgetary power and backs the ego agenda of whoever is in power. That these "new ways of fighting wars" are complete failures in battle against America's deadly asymmetric enemies does not bode well for the survival of the nation. Clearly, all of the current general officer egotists and firepower gadgeteers need to be fired en masse as General Marshall did so we could win WWII. We should declare WAR and get on with it.

When failure in battle is not enough: too low and small UAVs crashing and being shot down with "soda straw" vision = no timely information

Ironic though it is, the USAF fighter-bomber community hates unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) except when they can be used to get rid of a platform that hurts their ego: ie: the MACH 3+ SR-71. The idea is that without a man in the cockpit, the UAV can be made smaller and be less costly so MORE UAVs can be flown/operated such that if they get shot down, there is no downed aircrew to rescue nor multi-million dollar loss.

However like anything else in life, you get what you pay for. The sad truth is the that Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has already found out that if your UAVs do not get the recon because they crash or cannot see enough to be useful, or worse ruin the mission by alerting the enemy, their cost effectiveness is ZERO. The IDF has found that the presence of UAVs over the target area can alert the enemy who has set up ambushes to ambush the ambushers. The Americans in Kosovo and Afghanistan have found that the small size of the prop-driven UAV limits its optical camera views to a narrow "soda straw" that doesn't capture the detail nor coverage of the full camera weapons bay imagery of a large manned SR-71. The large numbers of UAVs to compensate for this lack of coverage have not materialized, and the alarming truth is that the enemy has been successful shooting UAVs down. Combined with accidents, the UAV approach to gaining battlefield reconnaissance is not generating timely nor thorough battlefield reconnaissance that it alone as the sole platform type is the solution. Enemies have thus escaped U.S. bombardment and ground maneuver in Iraq, Kosovo and now Afghanistan as a growing realization that ground recon by humans--HUMINT is a form of reconnaissance that cannot be replaced. UAVs offer a type of overhead reconnaissance that is good for point targets, but is no panacea that replaces all other types of recon systems but the USAF fighter and bomber jock leadership refuses to realize and admit this lest their egos would be bruised by the return of the SR-71. Instead the USAF are buying extremely expensive, large Global Hawk UAVs with more sensor capability which will fly at U-2 high altitudes but at subsonic speeds with radar stealth. How long if at all---will the unmanned U-2 (Global Hawk) survive if flown directly over the enemy's high altitude air defenses? How many can we afford to have crash from remote or unmanned operations?

The point is that the costs of small UAVs are rising which eliminates their ability to operate en masse or be lost by accidents and enemy shoot downs with a cavalier attitude since the mission's reconnaissance needs are not being fulfilled as they once were in the past with manned SR-71s . The marginal advantage of a large, expensive UAV gaining a slightly smaller size by not having pilots, being of a radar stealthy shape and flying at a high altitude will not last for very long as accidents and eventually Gary Powers-type shoot downs take their toll and air reconnaissance evaporates.

Clearly the USAF's next step will be a SR-71 multi-sonic recon UAV, but again the anti-SR-71 ego fails to see the forest from the trees from the sky or their view of the modern battlefield. The point is that a multi-sonic, high altitude platform is EXPENSIVE whether its manned or not. If its that expensive then it needs to be preserved, then the best way to do this is by having a human crew inside that can fly the platform home if it suffers damage by on-scene human observation/craftiness and not just shrug and watch it crash.

So how many years is it going to take before the U.S. military and the USAF realize UAVs are not a panacea nor the chronological human progress replacement for the manned, high-performance penetration recon aircraft (SR-71)? How many wars is America going to have to lose before we realize we do NOT have good reconnaissance to base firepower bombardment or decisive ground maneuver on? How many of our civilians are going to have to die because our incompetent military cannot get the terrorists before they launch 9/11 type attacks on our vulnerable citizens? Will it take a nuclear 9/11 type attack on an American city wiping out a few million to alert the American people that her military is run by petty adolescent egotists with hidden clubhouse agendas and not mature adult warrior professionals?

Conclusion reactivate the SR-71s and have the CIA own/operate them

Strategic Reconnaissance, the "SR" in SR-71 is too important a mission to be left with weak egos and their BS games in the USAF. Congress should short of firing all faulty General officers ala Marshall, should direct that all SR-71s be recovered and given to the CIA to own and operate to include new manufacture since the UAVs-for-reconnaissance concept is unraveling in actual operations as a miserable failure. The spy satellite also fails to provide imagery through clouds or responsive over designated and needed parts of the earth. We want air recon, we must pay for it; by insuring its done in a quality, thorough manner and that it survives combat by manned operation so it can do the job again and again or else we will not have air reconnaissance. Overarching this must be the humility to realize that there are limits to what air recon can achieve (cannot look through buildings, see through clouds, discern between civilian and combatant, observe in place for long periods of time, verify targets on foot, capture documents and persons etc.) and that ground recon to include aggressive HUMINT must be in play against an alert and cunning enemy for us to get them first with decisive strategic maneuver or else the survival of the United States of America will be in dire peril.