The world’s most advanced aircraft flew just 29 missions
In 1959, CORONA – the secret CIA and US Air Force satellite program to provide imagery and mapping of the Soviet Union – was still new. At that time, the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft was the main American means of determining the types of strategic weapons available to the USSR and their number. The U-2 could fly to 70,000 feet – which was beyond the range of Soviet fighters and missiles – to take detailed pictures of Soviet bloc military installations. But the Soviets had been hunting the U-2s from the start. (The U-2 first flew in 1955) It soon became clear that another solution would be needed.[i]
This need for an alternative to the U-2 was highlighted when, in May 1960, the Soviet Union shot down a U-2 and publicly tried its pilot, Francis Gary Powers.[ii]
Under the auspices of the highly secretive OXCART project, the CIA developed the A-12 to succeed U-2. The A-12 would be a high-flying reconnaissance aircraft that, unlike the U-2, could avoid Soviet air defenses. The CIA awarded the OXCART contract for the creation of the A-12 to Lockheed Martin in 1959, and the aircraft reached full operational readiness in November 1965. During testing, the A-12 achieved speed Mach 3.29 (over 2,200 mph) and an altitude of 90,000 feet,[iii] and in doing so set an unbroken record for manned jet aircraft.[iv]
The development of the A-12 was no picnic. The CIA has set strict requirements for speed, altitude, range, and radar section. For example, the A-12 designed with a usual cobra-like shape that allowed better dispersion of radar pulses.[v]
While the A-12 was meant to replace the U-2, following the Powers shootout over the Soviet Union, all Soviet overflights were discontinued. By the time the CIA’s A-12 was first deployed in 1967, the CORONA satellite program was in full swing, collecting thousands of images around the world each year, albeit less timely and of lower resolution. to that of the A-12. In contrast, CORONAs were not vulnerable to anti-aircraft missiles and were much less provocative than A-12 flyovers.[vi]
In this sense, the deployment of the A-12 was the victim of bad timing. Nevertheless, by early 1967 there was growing concern within the Johnson administration that the North Vietnamese might deploy targeted surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) southward undetected. In response to a request from the Johnson administration, the CIA offered to fly A-12s, which also had better cameras than the U-2.[vii]
On May 31, 1967, the first CIA-piloted A-12 mission obtained the photograph of 70 known surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites and nine other priority targets. No SSM installations were located. Until May 6, 1968, A-12 pilots flew 24 missions over North Vietnam; two on Cambodia, Laos and the DMZ; and three North Koreas.[viii] In one mission, an A-12 allowed the US military to locate the USS Pueblo, which had been illegally seized by North Korea, and confirm that no further hostilities were imminent.[ix]
Although the A-12 flights in Southeast Asia were successful, the most advanced aircraft ever built ended its missions after only 29 operational flights. Despite its advanced design and the program’s obvious benefits, fiscal pressures and competition between CIA and Air Force reconnaissance programs doomed the program. Even as the A-12 was declared operational in 1965, the Budget Office was circulating a memo that expressed concerns about the cost of the A-12.[x]
Along the same lines, a 1966 CIA study estimated that the total costs of the A-12 OXCART and successor SR-71 Blackbird aircraft systems in fiscal year 1968 to 1972 would be $1,377 million. . Of this number, A-12 costs would be $488 million.[xi] (Meanwhile, the SR-71 program continued until 1989, when it was decommissioned. The SR-71 program was briefly revived in the mid-1990s, but was officially discontinued in June 1999.)[xii]
In 2007, the US Air Force transferred an A-12 to the CIA for display, and it arrived at CIA headquarters in August. A crew of five assembled the A-12 airframe in 10 days, and its official presentation took place on September 19, as part of the CIA’s 60th anniversary celebration. Later, the A-12 was lifted by a crane and placed on a stand that held it in place. In early May 2008, the CIA Facilities Support Service completed the exposure of the A-12, 40 years after the end of the OXCART program.[xiii]
[i] Robarge, David. Archangel: CIA A-12 supersonic reconnaissance aircraft. CIA: Washington, DC Second Edition, 2012, p. 1
[ii] Pedlow, Gregory W. and Welzenbach, Donald E. “The Central Intelligence Agency and Air Reconnaissance: The U-2 and OXCART Programs, 1954–1974.” The History Staff, Central Intelligence Agency: Washington, DC, 1992. (Approved for public release 2013-06-25), p. 11. Obtained from CIA electronic reading room. https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/docs/DOC_0000190094.pdf
[iii] CIA. “Untouchable.” The art of intelligence. CIA Museum and Center for the Study of Intelligence: Washington, DC 2016. p. 32.
[iv] CIA. “OXCART vs. Blackbird: Do you know the difference?” November 12, 2015. Obtained from the CIA website at https://www.cia.gov/stories/story/oxcart-vs-blackbird-do-you-know-the-difference/
[v] Robarge, 1, 6.
[vi] CIA. “A-12 OXCART.” (nd) Obtained from the CIA website at https://www.cia.gov/legacy/headquarters/a-12-oxcart/
[vii] Robarge, 33 years old.
[viii] Robarge, 35 years old.
[x] Pedlow and Welzenbach, 307–308.
[xi] Fischer, Bill, Bennington, Herb and Parangosky, John. “Summary of BOB-CIA-DOD Study of OXCART and SR-71 Programs.” (1966, December 1). Study prepared by BOB, DOD and CIA. p. 4. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/docs/DOC_0001471749.pdf
[xii] “OXCART vs. Blackbird: Do you know the difference?”
[xiii] A-12 OX CART.
CIA. “Untouchable.” The art of intelligence. CIA Museum and Center for the Study of Intelligence: Washington, DC 2016.
CIA. “OXCART vs. Blackbird: Do you know the difference?” November 12, 2015. Obtained from the CIA website at https://www.cia.gov/stories/story/oxcart-vs-blackbird-do-you-know-the-difference/
CIA. “A-12 OXCART.” (nd) Obtained from the CIA website at https://www.cia.gov/legacy/headquarters/a-12-oxcart/
Fischer, Bill, Bennington, Herb and Parangosky, John. “Summary of BOB-CIA-DOD Study of OXCART and SR-71 Programs.” (1966, December 1). Study prepared by BOB, DOD and CIA. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/docs/DOC_0001471749.pdf
Pedlow, Gregory W. and Welzenbach, Donald E. “The Central Intelligence Agency and Air Reconnaissance: The U-2 and OXCART Programs, 1954–1974.” The History Staff, Central Intelligence Agency: Washington, DC, 1992. (Approved for public release 2013-06-25). Obtained from the CIA electronic reading room. https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/docs/DOC_0000190094.pdf
Robarge, David. Archangel: CIA A-12 supersonic reconnaissance aircraft. CIA: Washington, DC Second Edition, 2012.