The CIA’s A-12 was Almost Obsolete Before it Ever Flew

The U-2 was meant to be America’s greatest espionage asset against the Soviet Union, invisible to radar and out of reach of missiles. But its first flights in July of 1956 revealed it was neither invisible nor, likely, invincible. To maintain a technological edge over the Soviets, the CIA and Air Force began defining a new American reconnaissance program to take its place. That program was OXCART, the program that gave us both the A-12 and the SR-71. This is the story of how that U-2 follow-up aircraft was doomed before it even left the ground.

The US Air Force iteration of the A-12 in flight. USAF.

A Little U-2 Background

In the early 1950s, as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified, traditional forms of espionage with human operatives became impossible. The Iron Curtain shut off communication with Eastern Europe. What WWII-era photography the Americans had was nearly a decade-old and only covered the area west of the Urals; there was a tremendous amount of space in the Soviet Union that was largely unknown. The United States needed insight into the Soviet’s technological capabilities, namely its bombers and still nascent missile installations, to make decisions on its foreign policy. With no way to get past the Iron Curtain, the best option was to fly over it.

A U-2 on the tarmac. CIA.

The Successor

Several things from that first U-2 mission directed early thinking about the follow-up program. First, that it was so easily caught on radar and tracked. Anti-radar technology became a primary goal, countering or absorbing the radar from Soviet tracking stations, thus reducing detection.

GUSTO

The Department of Defense joined the early planning stages for GUSTO; it was a joint CIA-DOD program off the bat. And across the board, it was marked by excessive secrecy. Bissell urged everyone involved not to talk about it if at all possible. Soviet spies were known to be operating in the country. If some whisper of radar-reducing technology got to the wrong ears, the whole program would be revealed, allowing the Soviets to get a jump on developing better radar technology.

James Killian being sworn in; Eisenhower is to the left watching. NASA.

The Proposals, Round 1

Lockheed’s proposal was a traditional aircraft in that it took off from a runway. It was designed to fly high at Mach numbers at high altitude with the help of turbojet engines. Convair’s was a much smaller plane designed to air-launch from a B-58. From that launch point, it could reach high Mach numbers and high speeds faster with its ramjet engine. On paper and with only preliminary specifications fleshed out, both planes could meet the same operational specifications within the same development timeframe.

Richard Bissell. CIA.

The Proposals, Round 2

By mid-August 1959, the CIA had both new proposals in hand. The Lockheed design, similar to the A-11 but with modifications and new elements, was now called the A-12. The Convair proposal with some marked differences from FISH was treated as a follow-up and called KINGFISH.

Bringing OXCART to Life

In September of 1959, letters between the CIA, Air Force, and Lockheed laid the foundation for the new program, but everything was conditional. There would be further anti-radar studies, aerodynamic structural tests, and other design explorations using small-scale models, but it all hinged on Lockheed successfully reducing the A-12’s radar cross-section. The plane would represent a compromise between radar reduction and maintaining good aerodynamics, but it still needed to be better than the proposal as it stood.

Production Woes

Lockheed had scarcely begun production on the A-12 when a host of new problems surfaced.

Schematic of a turbojet engine. via ResearchGate.

Hiding in Plain Sight

In the background of the A-12 and J-58’s development programs, CIA and Air Force managers dealt with the overall program’s logistics.

Model A-12 being tested on a hydraulic lift. CIA.
Group shot of the Lockheed A-12 pilots. CIA.

Final Steps Towards Flight Readiness

Problems with the A-12 persisted as 1961 dawned. The quality of titanium was one. Lockheed was getting such poor quality material that it was unable to work at full capacity; in March, there was so little material only about 20 percent of the labour force was actively working on building planes.

The Final Checks

The detachment at Area 51 came into its own in the second half of 1961 under Colonel Robert J. Holbury. Pilots went through ground school training at Lockheed’s Burbank facility and supplemental flight training in F-101s. Support planes and their respective crews arrived in the desert: a C-130 to transport cargo, T-33s for pilot proficiency flying, a U-3A for administration purposes, a helicopter for any search and rescue needs, and a small Cessna-180 for liaison use. Everything was ready to get to work on March 15, 1962.

Historian and author of Fighting for Space (February 2020) from Grand Central Publishing. Also public speaker, TV personality, and YouTuber. [The Vintage Space]

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