Nearly 50 years after its first flight — and 15 years after its last — the SR-71 Blackbird still looks like the spy plane of the future.
During its Cold War heyday, the sleek rocket-plane could skim along the atmosphere at Mach 3, twice as high and more than three times as fast as commercial jet aircraft.
It could shoot high-quality photographs of secret sites from an altitude that no Soviet fighter could reach.
“You're scootin' along at 30 miles a minute,” said Harlon Hain of Bellevue, a retired Air Force colonel who flew the jet during the 1960s and 1970s. “We had more power, and we could go higher.”
If Gen. C. Robert Kehler — who heads the U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base — gets his wish, something like the Blackbird may again find its way into the Pentagon's fleet.
Two weeks ago, ForeignPolicy.com reported, Kehler told a group of defense writers in Washington that the Pentagon needed to plug a gap in its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability — a key StratCom mission.
Kehler was traveling last week and unavailable for an interview, a StratCom spokeswoman said. But he did release a short statement to The World-Herald.
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“I personally believe that the nation will need an air ISR capability that is suited for hostile environments that we are likely to encounter in future conflicts,” Kehler said.
Kehler's concern is about what is called in defense circles “anti-access/area denial,” or A2/AD. Broadly speaking, A2/AD refers to policies that limit the ability of the United States and its allies to move freely in the world, both politically and militarily.
For the Pentagon, that means nations that may block the U.S. from basing, staging or moving military planes and ships as it pleases. These foes may use missiles, rockets, mines or air-defense weapons.
The U.S. and its allies have fought a recent war in Iraq and are wrapping one up in Afghanistan. But when it comes to A2/AD, some of their biggest headaches come from Iran and China.
Iran is believed to be developing nuclear weapons; has threatened Israel, a close U.S. ally; and in the past has harassed shipping in the Persian Gulf.
China has sparred with its neighbors — including some U.S. allies — over its broad claims to control of the South China Sea, a key trade route. And it is believed to have launched cyber-attacks against the United States.
So, the U.S. believes that it has ample reason to keep an eye in the sky on what its rivals are up to.
For the past few decades, this has been done with a combination of spy satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Many people assume that spy satellites can photograph anything at any time, anywhere in the world. But they have significant limitations, said military analyst John Pike, executive director of the website GlobalSecurity.org.
They travel on fixed paths at fixed speeds. They can't be moved, and they can't loiter in one spot. Or, they are in “geosynchronous” orbit, staying in a fixed spot over the Earth's surface.
“They're almost never where you want them to be,” Pike said.
To get continuous surveillance in a given spot, the military deploys unmanned drones. They can hover for hours without putting the lives of any pilots at risk.
At the same time, though, existing drones are relatively slow-moving and can be shot down. The Iranians captured a CIA drone in northeast Iran in 2011.
The aging U-2 spy plane comes closer than anything to filling the SR-71's niche. First flown in the mid-1950s, about 32 of the high-flying Cold War relics are still operating, with souped-up avionics and camera gear.
U-2s can cruise above 70,000 feet and stay in the air 12 hours. But with a cruising speed of 430 mph — less than modern commercial jets — they are much slower than the SR-71. And, lacking modern stealth technology, they are easy to spot on radar.
In the 1960s, three U-2s, (two American and one Taiwanese) were shot down over the Soviet Union, Cuba and China. The wreckage of each is displayed in those respective countries, mute witnesses to the aircraft's vulnerability.
Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced plans a few years ago to retire the aging U-2s in favor of Northrop Grumman's RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle. Early last year, though, the Air Force reversed course and decided to curtail orders of the RQ-4 after it proved more costly than the U-2. Under current plans, the U-2 will remain in service until 2023.
Its relatively low cost is what allowed the U-2 to survive the Cold War while the Blackbird did not. Cruising the skies at Mach 3 isn't cheap.
Still, in its day, the SR-71 fulfilled the Air Force's critical need for a plane that could take photos anywhere from high up and get away quickly. None of the 32 aircraft built was ever brought down by hostile fire.
“The pictures I saw were better than (the ones taken from) drones and satellite,” said Hain, 86. “It's just unbelievable what the capability was.”
There's widespread agreement among military analysts that Kehler is right about StratCom's need. China twice has successfully destroyed its own satellites with ground-based missiles, indicating that ours could be at risk, too.
“We're going to need more ISR, not less,” said Steven Bucci, director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank. “Strategically, I think it's a great idea. We've gone a long while without any kind of replacement for the SR-71.”
“I think what Gen. Kehler was most concerned about was the capabilities of other nations to disrupt our satellites,” she said. “We may need to develop some new kind of platform.”
Yet adding spending of any kind is anathema to a large part of the GOP caucus in Congress.
The Defense Department is already struggling with significant cuts from budget sequestration. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel presented a message last week that warned of large troop cuts in all the military services or a temporary halt to new military technology.
Funding a new weapons system now seems like an impossible task.
“It's a great idea, brought forward at an unfortunate time,” Bucci said.
“In this fiscal environment, we have to play triage right now,” said Ben Freeman, a defense analyst for Third Way, a Washington think tank. “I don't see how this would rise to that level.”
Freeman said the Air Force is busy fighting to keep alive the $391 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. A document leaked Friday hinted that the Pentagon is considering axing it.
“The Air Force has so many of its eggs in the F-35 basket right now,” Freeman said. “Getting any new aircraft program in the next three or four years will probably be really difficult.”
Pike wonders why StratCom didn't bring up the issue earlier. “With effectively nearly unlimited money available for the intelligence community for the last 10 years, I don't know how there could possibly be an unmet need,” he said. “It's awfully late in the game to be looking at it.”
Fischer believes that the best chance is to end the sequester and to use funds from other parts of the defense budget.
“We need to look at where reductions can be made in a more thoughtful manner,” she said. “I'm not sure Defense can take much more.”
Kehler hasn't specified exactly what he's looking for.
“What those ISR capabilities look like ... and how much of it we will need remains to be seen,” he said in his statement.
Bucci said he presumes that designers would start with something like the SR-71 and modernize it. The new plane would certainly employ stealth technology, like the B-2 bomber.
His best guess is that a new spy plane would cost at least twice as much as an F-22, the Air Force's current fighter. Recent estimates on that aircraft have ranged from $350 million to more than $400 million apiece, when development costs are included.
“They would be extraordinarily expensive,” he said. “But they would only need a few.”
Kehler will be leaving StratCom soon. It will be up to Adm. Cecil Haney, who was confirmed Thursday as Kehler's replacement, to follow through.
If he does, maybe the Blackbird will fly again.