The Buzz

Exposed: Are Secret U.S. Spy Planes Flying Over the Pacific?

Despite the public admissions and much speculation, the Pentagon did its best to keep much of the SR-71 and its missions under wraps for more than a decade after Johnson’s speech. “In 1975, … I decided I wanted to apply for what was referred to as ‘The Program,'” former Blackbird pilot Air Force Col. Frank Stampf wrote in the forward to Paul Crickmore’s Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions.

Currently, there may be as many as three different top secret designs in some sort of testing. In December 2013, veteran Aviation Week reporters Bill Sweetman and Amy Butler declared the existence of a successor to the Sentinel dubbed the RQ-180.

With an estimated wing-span of 130 feet, Northrop Grumman’s so-called “cranked kite” stealth design – similar to the B-2 bomber – was larger and likely more capable than Lockheed’s Wraith. When the story came out, Sweetman and Butler figured the Air Force might get their first RQ-180s – another six character nomenclature that would fit in our document’s blacked out portion – by the end of this year.

The month before, Lockheed announced it had been working on its own new design. Billed as a successor to the Blackbird, the SR-72 would have a top speed of Mach 6 – nearly twice that of the Cold War-era spy plane. Since the late 1980s, rumors have swirledabout Lockheed’s secretive Skunk Works design arm cooking up a new, super-fast stealth jet.

In October, the Air Force also announced that Northrop Grumman had won the contract to build the new Long Range Strike Bomber, or LRS-B. While there have been few firm details, it’s possible that this bomber could double as a spy plane … and we don’t know how many prototypes there might be already.

“I think you suggested when we talked to you last week that you would give us a number for the … aircraft involved in the … EMD contract?” Sweetman asked Air Force officials at the Pentagon’s LRS-B press conference on Oct. 27, referring to the initial engineering and design phase of the project. “So we did talk about that, but we are not going to release that number, sir,” Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the military deputy to the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, quickly told him.

If what is known about the U-2, SR-71 and RQ-170 projects is any indication, the Pentagon could easily have unknown jets in development or flying real missions. They might be related to other top secret designs like the RQ-180, SR-72 or LRS-B … or not.

What is clear — a secret spy plane was already snooping around the Pacific two years ago.

This piece first appeared in WarIsBoring here.