This article is condensed from a secret study of the A-12 program that was first published in the Winter 1970-71 issue of Studies in Intelligence, a classified internal publication of the Central Intelligence Agency. It was written by CIA analysts under the collective pseudonym “Thomas P. McIninch.” The document was recently declassified. “The Oxcart Story” in our November 1994 issue, also taken from the CIA document, told of the origins and development of the A-12.
On May 31, 1967, a long, thin, highly classified American aircraft taxied to the runway at Kadena AB, Okinawa, south of the Japanese main islands. Despite heavy rain, the pilot was cleared to take off, and the aircraft roared into the sky. A few hours later and some 1,500 miles away, this unusual craft made two swift slashes through the airspace of North Vietnam, turned, and dashed toward home.
The aircraft, developed by Lockheed’s Skunk Works for the Central Intelligence Agency, had opened a new era in operational airpower. The first mission of the A-12 reconnaissance aircraft had been flown at more than three times the speed of sound.
Earlier in the spring of 1967, a good deal of apprehension was evident in Washington about the possibility that the North Vietnamese Communist regime might deploy deadly surface-to-surface missiles on its territory and attack American military bases in South Vietnam. This concern was aggravated by doubts that the US would be able to detect the move if it occurred. President Lyndon B. Johnson asked for a proposal on the matter.
The CIA suggested using its latest classified A-12 reconnaissance aircraft, code named “Oxcart.” The Oxcart was notable for its extremely long, slim shape, enormous jet engines, and sharp, projecting nose. It was a revolutionary airplane, able to fly at Mach 3 for more than 3,000 miles without refueling. After it had burned off much of its fuel, it could cruise above 90,000 feet. The CIA pointed out that the A-12’s camera was far superior to those on its drones or on its U-2 spy plane, and its vulnerability was far less.
After the end of U-2 flights over the Soviet Union in 1960, when Francis Gary Powers was shot down, US authorities were understandably cautious about committing to further manned reconnaissance over unfriendly territory. Even so, officials from the State Department and Defense Department, who earlier that year had opposed such a deployment, decided to reexamine the risks.
The first interest was in using the A-12 over Cuba. In early 1964, CIA project headquarters began planning for the contingency of flights over that island under a program designated Skylark. An accident held up this program for a time, but in August, the CIA directed that Skylark achieve emergency operational readiness by November 5. This involved preparing a small detachment that would be able to do the job over Cuba, though at less than the full design capability of the Oxcart. The goal was to operate at Mach 2.8 and 80,000 feet.
After considerable aircraft modifications, the detachment simulated Cuba missions on training flights. A limited emergency Skylark capability was announced. With two weeks’ notice, the detachment would overfly Cuba, though with fewer ready aircraft and pilots than had been planned.
Despite all this preparation, U-2s proved adequate for the mission, and the A-12 was reserved for more critical situations.
Project Black Shield
Detailed planning for an Asian deployment had been going on since 1965, when the United States had considered using the Oxcart to spy on Chinese military activities. The project, code named “Black Shield,” called for the Oxcart to operate out of Kadena. In the first phase, three aircraft would stage to Okinawa for sixty-day periods, twice a year, with about 225 personnel involved. After this was in good order, Black Shield would advance to maintaining a permanent detachment at Kadena.
In May 1967, as State and Defense engaged in deliberations, the Director of Central Intelligence, Richard Helms, submitted another formal proposal to deploy the Oxcart. He also raised the matter at President Johnson’s “Tuesday lunch” with top security advisors on May 16 and received the President’s approval to go ahead with the plan. Later that day, presidential advisor Walt Rostow formally conveyed Johnson’s decision, and the Black Shield deployment plan was put into effect.
The next day, the airlift to Kadena began. On May 22, the first A-12 (serial number 131) flew nonstop from the continental US to Kadena in six hours and six minutes. Aircraft No. 127 departed on May 24 and arrived five hours and fifty-five minutes later. The third, No. 129, left according to plan on May 26 and proceeded normally until, in the vicinity of Wake Island, the pilot experienced difficulties with the inertial navigation and communication systems. He made a precautionary landing at Wake, where a prepositioned emergency recovery team secured the aircraft without incident. The flight to Kadena resumed the next day.
Arrangements were made to brief the ambassadors and CIA chiefs of station in the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, South Vietnam, and Japan and the high commissioner and chief of station, Okinawa. The prime ministers of Japan and Thailand were advised, as were the president and defense minister of Taiwan. The chiefs of the air forces of Thailand and Taiwan were also briefed. They reacted favorably.
Ready to Go
On May 29, 1967, the unit at Kadena was ready to fly an operational mission. Under the command of Air Force Col. Hugh C. Slater, 260 personnel had deployed to the Black Shield facility. Except for hangars, which were a month short of completion, everything was in shape for sustained operations. The next day, the detachment was alerted for a mission to take place on May 31.
This first Black Shield mission followed one flight line over North Vietnam and another over the demilitarized zone separating North and South Vietnam. It lasted three hours and thirty-nine minutes, and the cruise legs were flown at Mach 3.1 and 80,000 feet.
Results were satisfactory. Seventy of the 190 known surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites in North Vietnam were photographed, as were nine other priority targets. No radar signals were detected, indicating that the first mission had gone completely unnoticed by both the Chinese and North Vietnamese. By mid-July the A-12 reconnaissance flights had determined with a high degree of confidence that there were no surface-to-surface missiles in North Vietnam.
Fifteen Black Shield missions were alerted between May 31 and August 15, 1967.
Seven of the fifteen were actually flown. Of these, four detected radar tracking signals, but no hostile action was taken against any of them.
CIA project headquarters in Washington planned, directed, and controlled all operational missions. Weather in the target areas was constantly watched. Each day at 4:00 p.m. Washington time, a mission alert briefing was held. If the forecast appeared favorable, Kadena was alerted and provided a flight route.
The alert preceded the actual takeoff by twenty-eight to thirty hours. Twelve hours before takeoff, target weather was reviewed for a second time. If it remained favorable, the mission generation sequence continued. Two hours before takeoff, a go/no go decision was made and communicated to the field. The final decision depended not solely on weather over the target area but also on weather in the refueling areas and at the launch and recovery base.
The A-12’s operations and maintenance at Kadena began with the alert notification. A primary aircraft and pilot and a backup aircraft and pilot were selected. The aircraft were thoroughly inspected and serviced, all systems checked, and the cameras loaded into the aircraft.
Pilots received a detailed route briefing in the early evening before the day of flight. On the morning of the flight, a final briefing was held, including information on the condition of the aircraft and its systems, last-minute weather forecasts, relevant intelligence, and changes in the flight plan.
Two hours before takeoff, the primary pilot had a medical examination, got into his suit, and was taken to the aircraft. If any malfunctions developed on the primary aircraft, the backup could execute the mission one hour later.
A typical route profile for a Black Shield mission over North Vietnam included a refueling shortly after takeoff south of Okinawa, the planned photographic pass or passes, withdrawal to a second aerial refueling in the Thailand area, and return to Kadena. So great was the Oxcart’s speed that it spent only twelve and a half minutes on two passes. Because of the A-12’s turning radius of eighty-six miles, however, officials knew that on some mission profiles it might be forced to intrude into Chinese airspace during its turn.
Once the Oxcart had landed back at Kadena, the camera film was removed from the aircraft, boxed, and sent by special plane to the processing facilities. Film from earlier missions was developed at the Eastman Kodak plant in Rochester, N. Y. By late summer 1967, an Air Force center in Japan was processing the film in order to place the photointelligence in the hands of American commanders in Vietnam within twenty-four hours of completion of a Black Shield mission.
Missiles Are Fired
Between August 16 and December 31, 1967, twenty-six A-12 missions were alerted. Fifteen were flown. On September 17, one SAM site tracked the vehicle with its acquisition radar but was unsuccessful with its Fan Song guidance radar.
During an A-12 flight in October, a North Vietnamese SAM site launched a single,unsuccessful missile—the first time a missile had been fired at the Oxcart. Mission photography documented missile smoke above the SAM firing site, the missile itself, and its contrail. The A-12’s electronic countermeasures equipment appeared to perform well against the missile firing.
On another October flight, pilot Dennis Sullivan detected radar tracking on his first pass over North Vietnam. Two sites prepared to launch missiles, but neither did. During the second pass, however, at least six missiles were fired at Sullivan’s aircraft, each confirmed on mission photos by missile vapor trails. Sullivan saw these vapor trails and witnessed three missile detonations. Postflight inspection of the aircraft revealed that a piece of metal had penetrated the lower right wing fillet area and lodged against the support structure of the wing tank. The fragment was not a warhead pellet but may have been a part of the debris from one of the missile detonations observed by the pilot.
In the first three months of 1968, the Oxcart operation was alerted fifteen times and flew six missions. Four of these were over North Vietnam and two over North Korea. The first mission over North Korea on January 26, 1968, occurred during a tense period, only three days after the Communist seizure of the US Navy ship Pueblo. Black Shield aimed to discover whether the North Koreans were preparing any large-scale hostile move on the heels of this incident. Chinese tracking of the flight was apparent, but no missiles were fired at the plane.
The State Department was reluctant to endorse another mission over North Korea for fear of diplomatic repercussions if the aircraft came down in hostile territory.
Brig. Gen. Paul Bacalis then briefed Secretary of State Dean Rusk on the details of the mission and assured him that the aircraft would pass over North Korea in no more than seven minutes. General Bacalis explained that even if some failure occurred during flight, the aircraft would be highly unlikely to land either in North Korea or in China. Secretary Rusk made some suggestions to alter the flight plan, thus becoming the project’s highest-ranking flight planner.
Between April 1 and June 9, 1968, two missions were alerted for overflights of North Korea. The only mission that actually gained approval was flown on May 8. As it turned out, that flight was also the Oxcart’s last. The problem was expense.
Beginning of the End
For years, the Bureau of the Budget had voiced concern at the past and projected costs of the A-12 and its two-seat Air Force version, the SR-71. It questioned the requirement for the total number of aircraft represented in the combined fleets and doubted the necessity for a separate CIA A-12 fleet. Several alternatives were proposed to achieve a substantial reduction in the forecasted spending, but the recommended course was to phase out the A-12 program.
Throughout the Oxcart program, USAF had been exceedingly helpful. It gave financial support, conducted refueling, provided operational facilities at Kadena, and airlifted Oxcart personnel and supplies to Okinawa for operations over Vietnam and North Korea. It also ordered from Lockheed a small fleet of A-11s, which on being finished as two-seat reconnaissance aircraft would be named SR-71. These would become operational about 1967.
The stated mission of the SR-71 was to conduct “poststrike reconnaissance,” that is, to look the enemy situation over after a nuclear exchange. The likelihood of using them in that capacity appeared small, but the Air Force’s SR-71s were of course also capable of ordinary reconnaissance missions.
Even for these purposes, however, the A-12 possessed certain clear advantages over the SR-71. It carried only one man and thus had room for a much bigger and better camera as well as for various other collection devices that at the time could not be carried by the SR-71. It was certainly the most effective reconnaissance aircraft in existence or likely to be in existence for years to come. In addition, it was operated by civilians and could be employed covertly or at least without the number of personnel and amount of fanfare normally attending an Air Force operation.
The Air Force’s procurement of SR-71s eased the path of Oxcart development because it meant that the financial burden was shared with the Air Force, and the cost per aircraft was reduced by producing greater numbers. In the long run, however, the existence of the SR-71 spelled Oxcart’s doom, for reasons that appear to have been chiefly financial.
In the months after it first performed its appointed role over North Vietnam on the last day of May 1967, the Oxcart demonstrated both its exceptional technical capabilities and the competence with which its operations were managed. As word began to get around that Oxcart was to be phased out, high-level officials began to feel uneasy.
Concern was expressed by Rostow, key congressional figures, members of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, and members of the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee. The phaseout lagged. A new study of the feasibility and cost of continuing the Oxcart program was completed in the spring of 1968, and four new alternatives for keeping it operational were proposed.
In spite of these belated efforts, in May 1968 Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford reaffirmed the decision to terminate the Oxcart program and store the aircraft. The President confirmed the Secretary’s decision.
Early in March 1968, USAF SR-71 aircraft began to arrive at Kadena to take over the Black Shield commitment, and by gradual stages the A-12 was placed on standby to back up the SR-71. After Oxcart’s last operational mission, the Kadena detachment was advised to prepare to go home.
Project headquarters selected June 8, 1968, for redeployment. In the meantime, A-12 flights were to be limited to those essential for maintaining flying safety and pilot proficiency. After Black Shield aircraft arrived in the US, they would proceed to storage. Those already at base were to be stored by June 7.
In its final days overseas, the Oxcart program suffered yet another blow, as inexplicable as it was tragic. On June 4, Aircraft No. 129, piloted by Jack Weeks, set out from Kadena on a check flight necessitated by a change of engine. Weeks was heard from when he was 520 miles east of Manila. Then he disappeared.
Search-and-rescue operations discovered nothing. No cause for the accident was ever ascertained, and it remains a mystery to this day. The official news release identified the lost aircraft as an SR-71, and security was maintained. A few days afterward, the two remaining planes on Okinawa returned to the US and were placed in storage with the remainder of the Oxcart family.
In a ceremony at the project’s secret Nevada base on June 26, 1968, Lockheed A-12 designer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson lamented the end of an enterprise that had inspired his most outstanding aircraft design. The Oxcart design had won him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 and the National Medal of Science in 1966 for his contributions to aerospace science and national security.
At the same ceremony, Vice Adm. Rufus L. Taylor, deputy Director of Central Intelligence, presented the CIA Intelligence Star for valor to pilots Kenneth S. Collins, Ronald L. Layton, Francis J. Murray, Dennis B. Sullivan, and Mele Vojvodich, Jr., for participation in Black Shield. The posthumous award to pilot Jack W. Weeks was accepted by his widow.
Colonel Slater and his deputy, Col. Maynard N. Amundson, received the USAF Legion of Merit. The Air Force Outstanding Unit Award went to the members of the Oxcart Detachment (1129th Special Activities Squadron, Detachment 1) and the USAF supporting units.
The wives of these pilots were at the ceremony, where they—and their husbands’ commanding officers—learned for the first time of the activities in which these men had been involved for nearly a decade.