The Central Intelligence Agency was created in 1947 principally to provide US leaders with strategic warning of attack by the Soviet Union. The Agency’s main mission during its first decade and a half was to deploy its collection and analytic assets to detect and preempt a nuclear Pearl Harbor. No other intelligence question had greater implications for the national interests of the United States — and its very survival — than determining what kinds of strategic weapons, and how many of them, the Soviet Union had, and how it intended to use them. With the USSR proving to be an extremely hard target for traditional espionage operations, the United States had to turn to technical collection to peer beyond the Iron Curtain.
In 1954, CIA retained the Lockheed Corporation to build the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. Essentially a jet-powered glider, the U-2 could fly at the unprecedented height of 70,000 feet — beyond the range of Soviet fighters and missiles — and take detailed photographs of Soviet Bloc military facilities. The aircraft was ready for operations in June 1956. At the time, CIA project officers had estimated that the U-2 would be able to fly safely over the Soviet Union for two years at most before it became vulnerable to Soviet air defenses. The Soviets tracked the U-2 from its first mission, however. The estimate had proven too optimistic, especially after initial efforts to mask the U-2’s radar image proved ineffective.
A more radical solution was needed — an entirely new aircraft. Before the U-2 became operational in June 1956, CIA project officials had estimated that its life expectancy for flying safely over the Soviet Union would be between 18 months and two years. After overflights began and the Soviets demonstrated the capability of tracking and attempting to intercept the U-2, this estimate seemed too optimistic. By August 1956, Richard Bissell was so concerned about the U-2's vulnerability that he despaired of its ability to avoid destruction for six months, let alone two years.
To extend the U-2's useful operational life, project officials first attempted to reduce the aircraft's vulnerability to detection by Soviet radars. Project RAINBOW's efforts to mask the radar image of the U-2 not only proved ineffective, but actually made the aircraft more vulnerable by adding extra weight that reduced its maximum altitude. Because Soviet radar operators continued to find and track U-2s equipped with antiradar systems, the CIA canceled Project RAINBOW in May 1958.
Long before the failure of Project RAINBOW, Richard Bissell and his Air Force assistant, Col. Jack A. Gibbs, had begun to look for a more radical solution to the problem of Soviet radar detection—an entirely new aircraft. In the late summer of 1956, the two officials visited a number of airframe contractors in a search for new ideas. Among the more unusual was Northrop Aviation's proposal for a gigantic aircraft with a very-high-lift wing. Because it would not be made of metal, the wing would require a type of bridge truss on its upper side to give it rigidity. The proposed aircraft would achieve altitudes of 80,000 to 90,000 feet but only at subsonic speeds, just enough to keep it airborne. The slow-flying Northrop design did not solve the problem of radar detection, and in 1957 the emphasis switched to supersonic designs.
In August 1957, the Scientific Engineering Institute (SEI), firm that had been working on ways to reduce tie U-2 's vulnerabiity to radar, began to investigate the possibility of designing an aircraft with a very small radar cross section. SEI soon discovered that supersonic speed greatly reduced the chances of detection by radar. From this point on, the CIA's attention focused increasingly on the possibility of building an aircraft that could fly at both extremely high speeds and high altitudes while incorporating the best ideas in radar-absorbing or radar-deflecting techniques.
The two most prominent firms involved in the search for a new aircraft were Lockheed, which had designed the successful U-2, and Convair, which was building the supersonic B-58 "Hustler" bomber for the Air Force and also working on an even faster model known as the B-58B "Super Hustler." Early in 1958, Richard Bissell asked officials from both firms to submit designs for a high-speed reconnaissance aircraft. During the spring and summer of 1958, both firms worked on design concepts without government contracts or funds.
On 21 April 1958, Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects [ADP] component, jokingly nicknamed the “Skunk Works” after the backwoods moonshine still in the comic strip Li’l Abner and already responsible for so many cutting-edge aviation achievements, began designing an aircraft that would cruise at Mach 3.0 cruise speed airplane having a 4,000 nautical mile range at altitudes above 90,000 feet.
Lockheed struggled to produce a viable design. Tentatively called the U-3 in early Skunk Works studies, the airplane had to meet stringent RCS requirements to make it more survivable than the U-2 was to hostile anti-aircraft defenses. Kelly Johnson developed and discarded numerous designs in an attempt to meet the CIA’s specifications. While he could design an airplane capable of attaining high speeds and altitudes, he found it difficult to significantly reduce the radar signature. For a while it appeared likely that the contract would go to General Dynamics/Convair.
Kelly Johnson first rough pencil sketch, made on 23 April 1958, for a Mach 3.0 airplane (then still called U-3) featured a slender, tapered airframe with a cross-section that was cylindrical up to the point where two engine pods nestled tightly against the aft fuselage. The high-mounted wing featured a diamond shape with squared tips. Two widely spaced, outwardly canted vertical stabilizers and two variable-position horizontal surfaces provided longitudinal and lateral control. At this point the CIA’s stated design objectives included a 500-pound reconnaissance payload capability, unrefueled mission radius of 2,000 nautical miles and a 90,000-foot cruising altitude.
By July 1958 the U-3 had evolved into Archangel 1. The Skunk Works studied various configurations called “Archangel-1,” “Archangel-2,” and so forth — a carryover from the original moniker of “Angel” given to the U-2 during its development. The nomenclature soon became simply “A-1,” “A-2,” etc. The earliest version of the A-1 design featured a conventional fuselage, 166.67 feet long with a sharply pointed nose. The wing, spanning 49.6 feet, was mounted at the top of the airframe and featured a sharply swept leading edge and gently swept trailing edge. Two J58 engines occupied engine pods below the wing roots. The cruciform tail assembly featured conventional vertical and horizontal surfaces with a relatively large surface area.
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