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This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.
Popularly known as Area 51, the U.S. Air Force's secret flight-test base at Groom Lake, Nev., was rebuilt and expanded in the late 1980s. The frequency of the "Janet" Boeing 737 commuter service that connects the base with Las Vegas shows that the facility has continued to operate at a healthy rate since then. Exactly one program known to have been conducted at Groom Lake since 1985, Boeing's Bird of Prey stealth demonstrator, has been unveiled. Add to that Lockheed Martin's RQ-170 Sentinel, which most likely was tested there, and Groom Lake has brought forth a couple of mice, as far as the public knows.
The Air Force lists $11.2 billion in classified research and development funding for fiscal 2013, much greater than most nations' total defense R&D. About $8 billion of this is what the service calls "non-blue" -- that is, funds transferred in kind or as cash to the intelligence community. That leaves $3.2 billion in classified, Air Force-only R&D. The service's procurement budget includes $17 billion for classified programs in a single line item that is equal to its entire "white" budget for aircraft, missiles and spacecraft. Although the service is the main money conduit into the intelligence community, that does not mean that such funds do not involve Air Force personnel or things that fly or go into space.
A little-acknowledged interface between the Air Force and the intelligence community is the service's Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO). Formed in April 2003, the low-profile office reports at a high level, its board of directors comprising the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics ("acquisition czar" Frank Kendall) and the Air Force secretary and chief of staff. It reports in parallel with the longer-standing special programs directorate.
RCO Director David Hamilton joined the office at its formation, after being involved with Air Force special test and development programs for most of the previous 20 years, including six years as director of special test programs at Edwards AFB. Groom Lake operates as a detachment of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards.
The RCO's patch carries a Latin motto, translated as "doing God's work with other people's money," which points to a funding model that involves connecting the end user -- the combat command or intelligence agency that can direct the budget, typically the CIA -- with the technology. The patch was the subject of a minor controversy in February, when a military atheist group objected to the wording. It was changed to read "miracles" and then removed from public view after a counter-complaint from Republican congressmen.
According to an Air Force Institute of Technology paper, the RCO uses "a streamlined set of processes that are compliant with all statutory guidance but can receive waivers to burdensome processes, procedures and regulations."
Although the RCO's only acknowledged effort is the Boeing X-37B spaceplane, its technical focus can be gauged by the fact that a recruitment notice for its deputy director identifies only three mandatory areas of "significant experience . . . low-observables, counter low-observables and electronic warfare."
The RCO leads the Air Force's involvement in the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 program, developed in 2002-06 before being put into service with Air Force and Air Force-operated CIA units. The office rescued the X-37 from limbo: Conceived in the early 1990s and considered for a time as part of the military spaceplane concept, the vehicle had been passed from the Pentagon to NASA and then to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and it had progressed only as far as subscale, low-speed glide tests when the RCO took over.
Since then, the RCO has funded two X-37Bs and completed two test missions, a 224-day flight in 2010 and a 468-day mission in 2011-12. The third mission is due to launch early this month, putting the program well over the billion-dollar mark with $600 million in launch costs alone.
Nobody is saying what the X-37B does. It was designed to do two things: return its payload to Earth and be more maneuverable in orbit than a satellite. It carries an estimated 25-30% of its mass in hydrazine propellant (the USA-193 satellite shot down in 2008 reportedly had a 20% fuel fraction) but can afford to use it at a higher rate because its mission lasts only a year.
Observers suggest X-37Bs have flown on typical imagery-intelligence profiles, and it is understood that they carry a payload that was identified after the initial decision to fund the test program. However, it is an indication of the RCO's influence that they have flown at all.