Area 51: Hype vs. Reality

In the October Popular Science, veteran aviation journo Bill Sweetman writes about secret airplanes he believes might be under development at the Air Force's remote Groom Lake test facility in Nevada, a.k.a. Area 51. Sweetman describes three demonstrators unveiled in recent years -- the Northrop Grumman Tacit Blue and Boeing Bird of Prey manned stealth planes and the Lockheed Martin Polecat drone -- but insists these are just consolation prizes offered up by a military that is keeping its major black airplane programs under wraps.area51_thingy.jpgNot that he has a ton of proof. "Hint[s]" and guesswork, mostly. The new construction at Groom Lake must mean something, he figures. And then there are those "obvious... significant gaps in the militarys known aviation arsenal -- gaps that the Pentagon can reasonably be assumed to be actively, if quietly, trying to fill."It's a strange series of calculations to make. The perceived holes -- high-speed, penetrating reconnaissance and long-range, stealthy strike -- are fairly well plugged up, at least until 2020. And the proposed gap-fillers are some of aviation history's more discredited flops and boogeymen.In his story, Sweetman speculates about "possible all-weather attack vehicles now in testing -- ones available sooner than [the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning's] 2014 [debut] and capable of carrying significant bomb loads."

A hint about [the plane]... could reside, aerospace historian Peter Merlin pointed out, in a test pilots unclassified biography. Daniel Vanderhorst, who flew Northrops [Tacit Blue] Whale and six other secret aircraft in a 20-year career, evidently tested modified landing gear and conducted initial tests of internal weapons bays and weapon separation tests. Whats unusual about this is that most prototypes are simple aircraft without weapon bays, which suggests that this airplane was closer to an operational type. Specifically, Im guessing, it could be an extension of the heavy-payload, all-weather attack jet A-12 Avenger II, which thenSecretary of Defense Dick Cheney canceled in 1991 because it was overbudget and not meeting its technological goals.
Never mind that the plane only got as far as the mock-up stage -- and even the mock-up was a mess, according to insiders. The airplane was an unmitigated disaster from the outset, as the lovable nerds at Globalsecurity.org explain:
The A-12 proved to be the most troubled of the new American stealth aircraft in large part because of problems found in the extensive use of composites in its structure. These composites did not result in anticipated weight savings, and some structural elements had to be replaced with heavier metal components. The weight of each aircraft exceeded 30 tons, variously estimated at between 10% and 30% over design specification, and close to the limits that could be accommodated on aircraft carriers.The Department of Defense terminated the contract [in 1991] after the contractors failed to deliver a single airplane after receiving more than $2 billion in payments. Instead, the contractors refused to continue with the contract unless they received extraordinary relief in the form of relaxed terms and extra funds. At the same time, they would or could not assure delivery of an aircraft by a time certain, specify the aircraft's performance capabilities, or commit to a specific price for the aircraft.
For more than a decade, the U.S. government has been trying to get a $2.3-billion refund on the A-12 from the contractors.Addressing that alleged gap in penetrating reconnaissance, Sweetman dredges up the old Aurora spyplane, the Bigfoot of aviation journalism. When the super-cool Lockheed Martin SR-71 Blackbird was retired in 1991, aviation enthusiasts imagined that something cooler had taken the Blackbird's place. That something cooler was the triangular, hypersonic, high-flying Aurora, Sweetman writes:
Such a vehicle -- a ramjet-powered reconaissance and strike aircraft capable of flying at least five times the speed of sound and deploying anywhere in the world in a matter of hours -- has been high on the governments wish list. Aurora is certainly possible. The basic propulsion unit, the ramjet, is no more than a tapered tube with a fuel injector and burner in the middle and a thrust nozzle at the end. Basic ramjet-powered missiles have topped Mach 6. A wealth of aerodynamic data and test flights suggest that a wedge-shaped aircraft would work at these speeds.I first heard about this kind of program in the mid-1980s, and the first public hint of the project popped up in 1988, when The New York Times reported that the Air Force was developing a spyplane capable of better than Mach 5 -- nearly twice as fast as the SR-71, then the worlds fastest airplane.
a-12_1.jpgUnless you count some unexplained sonic booms or the uninformed testimony of one amateur plane spotter (who was probably, unknowingly, looking at a Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit), there is not a shred of evidence of Aurora's existence. Yes, the basic technology for such an aircraft is there, but it's not yet advanced enough nor integrated for practical use. The Air Force/Lockheed Martin Falcon program (among others) is just beginning to pull together a useful hypersonic aircraft.Maybe Sweetman has some treasure trove of corroborating data that he doesn't share in his article. Otherwise, what's seems to be happening here is a recycling of some of aviation's favorite ghost stories ... followed by a retroactive identification of the military roles they might fill and claims that urgent needs in these areas proves the secret airplanes' existences.The problem is that none of the needs are really all that urgent. Let's start with long-range stealthy strike. Sweetman writes that the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor's bombload is too light, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning is too far from service and the Lockheed Martin F-117 Nighthawk lacks a radar for precision targeting.The F-22's bombload is indeed light compared to, say, the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress'. But the Raptor can deliver two 1,000-pound satellite-guided Boeing Joint Direct Attack Munitions at supersonic speed and high altitude, imparting unprecedented energy and range to these very accurate weapons. It's nothing to sneeze at. The F-117, for its part, was never intended to drop radar-guided munitions. Its main weapons are laser-guided bombs, which don't require a radar and are still more accurate than even JDAMs.Sweetman leaves all the Air Force's strategic bombers off his list. What about the B-2, which is long-ranged, stealthy and can carry an enormous bombload? We have 21 of those. Or the Boeing B-1B Lancer, which in addition to its long legs and huge bombload has a radar cross-section smaller than even most fighters'? We have 70 Lancers. Our 90-strong B-52 fleet can fire stealthy cruise missiles hundreds of miles away from its targets. Sure, the planes are decades old. But they work really well. Why not count them?aurora_triangle.jpgTruth be told, we have more than 180 very capable long-range bombers, many of them stealthy, plus 50 F-117s and 60 out of an eventual 180 Raptors. We took down Iraq's air defenses in 2003 with just a small percentage of the bomber fleet.Sure, anti-air systems are growing more sophisticated especially as you look out into the 2020s. But in ten years, we'll have a couple hundred F-35s on the ramps too. Five years after that, we're supposed to see the product of the Air Force's new Long-Range Strike study, which is a clean-slate approach to stealthy bombing. A revamped A-12 is an unlikely candidate for the competition.As for Aurora ... it would fill a need now met by a combination of satellites, drones, camera pods and upgraded aircraft including the Lockheed Martin U-2 Dragon Lady. Despite some hand-wringing over the average age of Air Force recce planes, most experts admit that our portfolio of reconnaissance assets is diverse and robust.You want to talk urgent needs? How about airlift? Or loitering drones? Or Marine Corps fighters? Or tankers? Or rescue helicopters? Or naval patrol planes? The truly urgent needs in military aviation just aren't sexy ... and the solutions aren't secret.-- David Axe
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