Other sources suggest the existence of a subsonic stealthy recconnaissance aircraft, which is reportedly designated the TR-3A, although its actual designation and mission remain unclear.<1> Recently, it has been posited that the aircraft was designed to collect and transmit near-real-time digital photo information directly to F-117As for immediate tactical applications. The TR-3A reportedly has a range of more than 5,000 kilometers and the ability to operate at both low and high altitudes.<2>
The aircraft has been reportedly observed flying with KC-135 aerial tankers, F- 117 stealth fighters and T-38 aircraft. Its engines are said to run more quietly than the muffled General Electric F-404 powerplants on the Stealth fighter, which may explain how an aircraft of this type could elude detection for some time. Because of their vantage point, ground observations were unable to determine whether any vertical control surfaces jut from the aircraft's back.<3>
The TR-3A, if it exists, may have a slightly larger planform, possibly up to 42 feet long with a 60-65 foot wingspan. It is suggested that:<4>
"About 25-30 of the special reconnaissance aircraft -- designated the TR-3A 'Black Manta' -- could be placed in service eventually, based at Holloman AFB, NM, and Tonapah, Nev. Initial TR-3As are collected with F-117As, although housed separately in larger hangars. Several TR-3As are believed to have been deployed temporarily to Alaska, Britain, Panama and Okinawa. More recently, they are believed to have supported F-117A operations in the Persian Gulf war."
During Operation Desert Storm, the TR-3A's secret identity could have been protected by limiting it to F-117A support.<5> At one point, for instance, Saudi Arabian air force Northrop RF-5s were requested to augment USAF RF-4C operations. One could thus infer that TR-3A data were not distributed widely for use by other than F-117As.<6>
Apart from press reports, there is essentially no open-source information supporting the existence of such an aircraft. Indeed, what evidence does exist would tend to support the contrary proposition, that there is no such program.
During the debate in 1989 over the cancellation of the SR-71, General Michael Dugan, then serving as commander of US Air Forces in Europe, suggested that a new stealthy high-altitude, low-speed aircraft, possibly unpiloted, might take up some of the slack created by the termination of the SR-71.<7>
Another Air Force source suggested that:<9>
"There might be some thoughts about using low-observable platforms for that mission, but we are not doing that right now."
During 1991 Lockheed made a major effort to convince the Congress to support a billion dollar program to build an additional 24 F-117A aircraft, and to purchase equipment that would enable the F-117A to perform reconnaissance missions.<10> The aircraft would be modified to carry the ATARS camera system in one weapons bay, and a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) in the aircraft's other weapons bay. This palletized installation would permit the aircraft to be converted back to the attack configuration in about four hours.
Although the proposal was endorsed by the Senate Armed Services Committee, it was fiercely opposed by the Air Force, which ultimately prevailed in eliminating funding for the project.
The operational characteristics of the proposed reconnaissance version of the F- 117 are virtually identical to those that have been suggested for the TR-3A. Unavoidably, this episode raises questions about the plausibility of the existence of the TR-3A.
It is very difficult to understand how Lockheed could engage in a very public controversy involving the Air Force, and Sam Nunn, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, regarding production of a reconnaissance version of the F- 117A, if the company were already involved in the production of a virtually identical aircraft, the TR-3A.
While it might be imagined that perhaps this episode might be explained by a decision by the Air Force to cancel the TR-3A, and that Lockheed was hoping to restart the F-117A production line in compensation, there is no evidence to support such an interpretation. And such an assumption would run counter to the assertion that the TR-3A had already achieved operational status by the time of Desert Storm.
Confirming the earlier reports, during the course of this episode one Air Force source noted that:<11>
"They tried to sell this idea to the Air Force back in 1987. The service wasn't looking for a stealthy reconnaissance aircraft back then and it isn't looking for one now."
Based on this record, the existence of the TR-3A must be regarded as suspect, unless one is prepared to accept the proposition that this entire episode, involving a large number of senior government and corporate officials, was merely part of an elaborate cover and deception operation, intended to obscure the existence of the TR-3A.
The assertion that mystery aircraft like the TR-3A exist implies that some item in the Defense budget can be arguably associated with the program. A not- implausible accounting can be made that suggests an identifiable source of funding that may be attributed to the TR-3A stealth aircraft program. The existence of this budget item significantly bolsters the case for the existence of this program.
Prior to 1989, much of the funding for the B-2 Advanced Technology Bomber was contained in an Air Force Aircraft Procurement line item designated Other Production Charges. This line item was aggregated in a budget activity designated Aircraft Support Equipment and Facilities, which included such items as Common Ground Equipment, for which roughly half a billion dollars was budgeted in the mid-1980s, as well as other items such as War Consumable, and Industrial Responsiveness.
The comparable Navy budget activity also provided roughly half a billion dollars for Common Ground Equipment during this period. But it is interesting to note that while the Navy allocated approximately $50 million for Other Production Charges (indicative that there is indeed something that actually consists of Other Production Charges, whatever such a miscellaneous category might encompass), the Air Force allocation for Other Production Charges had peaked at over $3.5 billion by 1987. This mystery was solved with the FY 1989 budget, which for the first time provided unclassified budget figures for the B-2. The Other Production Charges line dropped nearly $2 billion from the previous year.
Actual Actual Estimated FISCAL B-2 B-2 B-2 Other YEAR Procurement Advanced Production Procurement Charges 1980 669 1981 50 801 1982 410 1,046 1983 820 988 1984 1200 1,413 1985 2100 1,877 1986 2400 1,941 1987 3200 3,514 1988 0 0 3600 2,977 1989 2,484 313 1,075 1990 1,638 425 563 1991 2,054 295 460 1992 2,456 455 547 1993 3,145 463 686
C3I Paine Nisbet Shapiro AVERAGE Report Webber R&D TOTAL TOTAL TOTAL TOTAL FY 1981 50 50 1982 410 410 1983 850 1,110 701 624 820 1984 1,335 1,325 1,120 1,060 1200 1985 2,610 2,000 2,020 1,764 2100 1986 2,215 2,405 2,500 2,425 2400 1987 2,970 4,150 2,800 3,000 3200 1988 2,935 4,760 3,500 3,300 3600
* Dennis begins with the Air Force's figure of $36.6 billion in FY81 dollars, applies DOD inflation factors, and uses the accepted spendout rate formula for Air Force aircraft to arrive at these numbers for ATB procurement. Table taken from Congressional Research Service report on ATB, 4 November 1987.
Shapiro and Nisbet from Armed Forces Journal International/October 1987 P.26
But the solution of this mystery revealed an enigma -- even without the Stealth Bomber, Other Production Charges received over $1 billion in 1989, and about half a billion each year thereafter. That the remaining activity in this account covers sensitive activities was confirmed by the House Appropriations Committee in 1992, when it noted that the explanation of its $118 million reduction from the $686 million request was itself classified.<12>
A careful review of the Air Force budget fails to disclose any other program of comparable magnitude which could account for this level of expenditure. All other major Air Force programs, such as the Advanced Tactical Fighter, MILSTAR, and the Advanced Cruise Missile, have discreet and identifiable line items that account for their budgets. While the Other Production Charges line item probably included funding for the F-117A program in the early 1980s, more recent activity under that program is inconsistent with a half-billion dollar annual procurement expenditure.
The recent funding level of the Other Production Charges line item is strongly suggestive of a continuing program to procure additional stealth aircraft, and is consistent with published accounts of the TR-3A program.
This connection is further strengthened by the similarity in magnitude between the funding level of Other Production Charges, and the cash flow stream and employment at Lockheed Aeronautical Systems Group.
Like Al Capone, black aircraft may be uncovered not by sightings or hard testimony, but by an audit trail. If more money is flowing into a particular company's coffers than can be explained by the amount of aircraft or other hardware being produced, one may infer that some project is being financed that the public is not privy to. As early as 1988, for example, financial analysts printed sales estimates for Lockheed's Aeronautical Systems Group that far exceed any income explained by the firm's known programs. According to one analysis:<13>
"... Bernstein & Co. provided year-by-year Lockheed revenues for 'stealth programs' (plural) that showed increases from $563-million in 1982 to $1.126 billion in 1988, leveling off at $752-million annually in 1990 through 1992."
Another analysis noted that Lockheed's:<14>
"... Aeronautical Systems Group, based in Burbank, Calif., will receive more than $1.1 billion in 1988 government funding that cannot be attributed to any known program... Also, there are more cars in the division's parking lot than can be accounted for by employees of known programs, indicating the possible existence of a new and secret project."
Lockheed's Advanced Development unit is believed to have about 4,000 employees on its payroll, even though TR-1 and F-117A production and YF-22A prototype construction have been completed.<15> What are all these people working on?
While the production of the F-117A stealth attack aircraft has been completed, it was reported that up to a billion dollars a year is still being consumed by Lockheed Systems Co, at Burbank, CA.<16>
A study of this question by Kemper Securities analyst Lawrence Harris noted that Lockheed's revenues from classified aircraft programs was approximately $400 million in 1991:<17>
"Our analysis of Lockheed Skunk Works (Advanced Development Co.) sales suggests that despite the completion of the production portion of the F-117A and TR-1 programs, Skunk Works revenues have remained fairly robust...
Lockheed officials deny these reports, however, and offer a not-implausible explanation for the financial discrepancies. Ben Rich, President of Lockheed Advanced Development Projects Company (the Skunk Works), observed:<18>
"I have heard and read about Aurora, and I do not know what Aurora is. And it is not what we are doing in the Skunk Works. There are a whole bunch of programs out there, lots of them are sensor programs. And that is where we are applying our expertise."
Despite these denials, it is intriguing to note that the roughly half-billion dollars of unexplained Lockheed revenue neatly matches the half-billion dollars of unexplained expenditure in Other Production Charges.
It is suggested that the TR-3A aircraft evolved from a number of 1970s era classified programs aimed at developing both a deep-interdiction strike fighter and a companion vehicle to gather target location data.<19> It appears that a plethora of black programs based on stealth techniques were recommended to the services and intelligence agencies between 1976 and 1983.<20> These included:<21>
"...the Air to Surface Technology Evaluation and Integration (ASTEI) program; created to develop concepts for an advanced deep interdiction fighter.... the Covert Survivable In-weather Reconnaissance/Strike (CSIRS) program, which was to yield two separate stealth aircraft designs.... A THAP demonstrator, which made its first flight from the secluded Groom Lake, Nev., facility in 1981. The company reportedly received a follow-on Air Force contract in 1982 to build what was to become the TR-3A, based on the THAP concept."
The single-pilot Tactical High Altitude Penetrator (THAP) design concept was a spanloader airframe design approximately 38 feet long. THAP's wingspan was 56 ft and it stood approximately 14 ft. high and had a maximum takeoff weight of 55,000 to 60,000 pounds.<22> The original THAP design reportedly relied heavily on radar-absorbing material (RAM) -- as well as blended, curved surfaces -- to reduce its radar cross section. This would contrast with the faceted surfaces of the F-117A and would probably result in a heavier aircraft than today's stealth fighter. The long-range reconnaissance mission, however, is more forgiving of extra weight than the combat mission.<23>
Another potential explanation for the triangles reportedly speeding about over the western United States is that these craft are really "proof-of-concept vehicles for the Navy's now canceled A-12 attack plane, an older technology demonstrator for the B-2 or a not-off experimental prototype."<24> Some speculate that an entire "classified fleet" of these large-winged concept demonstrators exist."<25>
The existence of a few such unique technology demonstrators is more readily reconciled with the existing evidence than would the existence of a fleet of TR- 3A aircraft. It would readily explain some of the reported sightings of unusual aircraft.
It has been suggested that the TR-3A was used in conjunction with the F-117A during Desert Storm. But this is difficult to reconcile with the nature of the targets attacked by the F-117A, which were fixed targets, such as command posts and air defense stations. These targets were carefully studied and selected during the months prior to the initiation of the air campaign. Thus it is difficult to understand precisely what function the TR-3A would have been performing to assist the F-117A, which certainly had no need for additional target acquisition support. In the absence of a more explicit suggestion as to the precise relationship between the roles of the TR-3A and the F-117A, the existence of a fleet of operational, battle-tested TR-3As must be regarded as suspect.
<1> Scott, William, "Triangular Recon Aircraft May Be Supporting F-117A," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 10 June 1991, page 20.
Pope, Gregory, "America's New Secret Aircraft," Popular Mechanics, December 1991, page 34.
<4> Scott, William, "Triangular Recon Aircraft May Be Supporting F-117A," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 10 June 1991, page 20.
<7> Amouyal, Barbara, "AF Pushes for New Stealthy Spy Vehicle; Blackbird Replacement Is a Decade Away," Defense News, 24 April 1989, page
Pope, Gregory, "America's New Secret Aircraft," Popular Mechanics, December 1991, page 34.
<9> "Stealth Recce," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 28 November 1988, page 19.
<10> "Lockheed Continues to Lobby Congress on F-117 Despite USAF Protests," Inside the Air Force, 18 October 1991, pages 17-18.
<11> Rogers, Jim, "Lockheed, Air Force in Heated Behind-the-Scenes Battle Over F-117 Recon Plan," Inside the Air Force, 6 September 1991, page 1, 8.
<12> House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations, Department of Defense Appropriations Bill, 1993, 102nd Congress, 2nd Session, page 133.
<13> Schemmer, Benjamin, "Is Lockheed Building a Super-Stealth Replacement for USAF's Mach 3 SR-71?" Armed Forces Journal International, January 1988, page 40.
<14> "Evidence Points to Stealth Spy Plane," High Technology Business, April 1988, pages 8-9.
<15> "Secret Advanced Vehicles Demonstrate Technologies For Future Military Use," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 1 October 1990, page 21.
<16> "Update on Aurora," Aerospace World Weekly, 9 March 1990, page 5.
<17> "Skunk Works Revenues Point to Active Aurora Program, Kemper Says," Aerospace Daily, 17 July 1992, page 102.
<18> "One on One," Defense News, 25 June 1990, page 38.
<19> "TR-3A Evolved From Classified Prototypes, Based on Tactical Penetrator Concept," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 10 June 1991, page 20.
<22> Scott, William, "Triangular Recon Aircraft May Be Supporting F-117A," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 10 June 1991, page 21.
<24> Pope, Gregory, "America's New Secret Aircraft," Popular Mechanics, December 1991, page 34.
<25> "Secret Advanced Vehicles Demonstrate Technologies For Future Military Use," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 1 October 1990, page 20.