AVIATION WEEK & SPACE TECHNOLOGY
24 December 1990
Scientists' and Engineers' Dreams
Taking to Skies as 'Black' Aircraft
Super-classified "black" aircraft development programs have served the U.S. and its allies well during the last 40-plus years, providing specialized vehicles such as the U-2/TR-1, SR-71 and F-117A. Still unproven, but also products of this special access shadow world, are the B-2 bomber and Navy A-12, among others.
How many additional air vehicles may have been developed, yet never revealed publicly, often is debated but rarely proven.
It is certain, however, that eight years of Reagan Administration were good to the black world. For whatever reason, billions of dollars were pumped into highly classified, special access programs and new facilities, allowing creative scientists and bright engineers unprecedented opportunities to experiment and test their wildest dreams. Their only constraint, apparently, was that projects be linked to operational considerations and pragmatic applications.
A number of those dreams have taken wing in the past few years, and increasing numbers of new, exotic vehicles have been reported by ground observers throughout the U.S. recently (AW&ST Dec. 18, 1989, p. 42; Oct. 1, p. 22). In addition, airline and military pilots have reported seeing unusual high-speed, high-altitude, maneuvering vehicles during the last few years.
What these sightings add up to is this: The U.S. has developed a fleet of new aircraft and is either testing them or already flying several types in operational service. Because they are considered "super-super-black" programs, military and other government officials deny their existence.
Those who are briefed and know such aircraft exist cannot admit it, and those who are not briefed simply do not know. The best guesses of experts - and those who think they should know, by virtue of their position -really are no more revealing than those of a technically minded layman extrapolating from the known state of "white world" technology.
But for all those billions, what has the American taxpayer bought? Is the nation - and the world - any safer? Do we now possess the "ultimate" weapons featured in comic books - the ones so devastating any potential adversary would never think of disturbing the peace for fear of the good guys' retaliation? Are exotic black-world aircraft real peace-makers?
Briefings and well-choreographed show-and-tell sessions given to selected members of Congress and key government officials in the late 1980s would lead one to believe some of these exotic aircraft just might be such weapons. While unabashedly appealing for continued funding under the Bush Administration, proud hosts of these sessions referred to unique air vehicles on display as "the reasons the Iron Curtain Fell."
Unfortunately, proving the existence of such aircraft is not a trivial task for those well-grounded on the unclassified side of the fence, despite bits and pieces of strong evidence in hand. So, most of the curious among us are reduced to watching the night sky, sifting through tons of technical literature and making educated deductions. Through this process, a natural first question any technical skeptic worth his salt might ask is: "What would such a vehicle look like, and what would be its mission?"
For sake of argument, let's consider the following details as comprising a theoretical possibility of a hypersonic U.S.-developed aircraft which could be cruising the skies tonight:
* An elongated, diamond-shaped unmanned vehicle measuring about 110 ft. long and 60 ft. wide at its midpoint. Call it a flattened football shape. But fore and aft end points, as well as the leading edges, are rounded rather than sharp. Although diamond-shaped, the aircraft's basic contours might be described as similar to those of a smooth "skipping stone." The vehicle has a heavy appearance, likened to the blocky sturdiness of a Caterpillar tractor or even the space shuttle.
* All surfaces are covered with black ceramic tiles, quite similar to those now used on the shuttle orbiter. They have a scorched, heat-streaked appearance, and seem to be coated with a crystalline patina indicative of sustained exposure to high temperature. A burnt-carbon odor emanates from the surface. The aft body tiles are distinctly more pockmarked and degraded than those on the forward half of the aircraft, as if they had experienced the most heat.
* Jet engines buried in the lower fuselage are fed by inlet ducts that open into the tile surface. These power plants boost the aircraft to supersonic speeds, at which time an external burning mechanism takes over as the primary propulsion method. The turbojets are shut down, and their inlet/exhaust ports are closed until speed drops to the low Mach numbers again.
In the high-Mach engine, misted fuel is ejected from the fuselage midsection - the "break point" of the elongated diamond - across the aft surface tiles, into the area between the fuselage and a shock wave attached to this break. In essence, the sloping, converging aft fuselage sections form the inside of a "nozzle," and the shock boundary constitutes the outer surface, creating and expanding exhaust effect, much like that on a conventional rocket.
The fuel is ignited by surface heating - or other means - creating combustion that accelerates the aircraft up to the Mach 6-8 regime.
* Narrow leading and trailing edge sections provide aerodynamic control in all axes.
* On the fuselage underside, forward of the midsection and between the buried power plants, is a clipped-diamond section covered with 121 tile-covered ports. Behind each cover -which is flush with the fuselage surface - rests a nuclear warhead which approximates the shape of either a reentry vehicle (RV) or an artillery shell. Each RV stands vertically, pointing down.
When released, the cover tile is discarded, the weapon is ejected downward, and a second tile automatically is moved into position, closing the port and retaining a smooth aircraft surface. These weapons are dispensed only at subsonic speeds to enhance accuracy and avoid internal heating problems from opening a port in the lower, heated external surfaces, especially when in the hypersonic regime.
* The unmanned vehicle is capable of onboard self-control, but also will accept external commands via satellite or a ground station. Sandia's Winged Energetic Reentry Vehicle Experiment project confirmed that electromagnetic signals can be received by such a vehicle, even through the ionized layer surrounding it at hypersonic speeds (AW&ST Aug, 6, p. 25).
Clearly, an unmanned vehicle of this type would be a powerful strategic weapon, able to devastate targets over a wide area. Its Mach 6-8 speed would improve the ability to survive greatly, because fighters and ground-to-air missiles would be hard-pressed to intercept the vehicle. Even though it must slow to possibly subsonic speeds for weapons delivery, the aircraft's surface structure and low radar cross-section contours would give it a respectable low observable characteristics which could complicate targeting by defenders.
Reconnaissance versions would have twice the speed capability of the now-retired SR-71, yet, being unmanned, would not risk the loss of a human crew when operating over high-threat areas. Once proven effective, such an aircraft would be a dream come true for any four-star in charge of the Strategic Air Command.
Of course, it also would complicate the Air Force's arguments for funding expensive armaments such as the B-2 bomber, MX missile and small ICBM. Could these still be justified, in the numbers originally requested?
Finally, as Persian Gulf tensions continue into 1991, one must question whether the U.S. commander in chief and his defense secretary are fully aware of super-black weapon systems' potential.
Let's hope so.
Hard as it may be to fathom, there is reason to wonder whether complete knowledge of the most exotic aircraft may reach "The Top," all for super-security.
One would like to think America's staggering black-world expenditures have yielded weaponry that could neutralize Iraqi President Hussien's most valued military and political assets quickly. Some say that capability is in hand and could be used -albeit with conventional payloads - if the right people choose to do so. If they do not, why not?
If so, why are almost 400,000 U.S. and allied troops dug into the sand in Saudi Arabia, prepared to slug it out in a bloody ground war?
Maybe it's time for America's taxpayers to demand an accounting of their black-world investments.
The tradeoffs between national security - the reason for keeping programs "black" in the first place - and the lives of those troops are worthy of wider consideration.
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