How US Military Spy Plane Drove the USSR Crazy

In the early part of the Cold War, the United
States had a serious problem- gathering intelligence on the Soviet Union was proving incredibly
difficult to do. Several attempts to establish intelligence
networks behind the iron curtain had been violently put down, and a number of American
and British spies, along with local collaborators, had met their ends at the hands of Soviet
counterintelligence forces. Penetrating the Iron Curtain was proving all
but impossible, and while the Americans were relatively new to the spy game, the Soviets
were seasoned veterans that ran rings around the CIA. Gathering intelligence on Soviet nuclear weapons
was critical- how many did they have? Where were they located? How fast could they be deployed and what was
their maximum range? In these early decades of the Cold War, the
world hung on the edge of nuclear war, and knowing its enemy could prove to be the only
thing that would save the United States- or at least mitigate the damage of an all-out
nuclear exchange. Yet human operatives were routinely failing
in their mission, or winding up dead. Recognizing that they still had a lot to learn
from their Soviet counterparts about spying, the US turned to the one area that it was
superior to the Soviet Union in for an answer: technology. Immediately after World War II the US, Britain,
and the Soviet Union all scrambled to get their hands on all the Nazi technology they
could, along with their brilliant engineers and scientists. Given the United States’ liberal society and
deep animosity between Germans and communists, most German scientists however opted to turn
themselves into American authorities willingly, and the Soviets were largely forced to resort
to kidnapping or threats to get their hands on high value Germans. The influx of German talent to the US, and
the lure of American liberal culture to a world decimated by war and pitted between
dictatorships and communist regimes helped bring other great minds to American shores,
and soon the US was leapfrogging the Soviet Union technologically in several key areas. One of these areas was in the design of high
performance aircraft. While the Soviets were always the superior
rocket scientists, American talent for aircraft was unmatched anywhere in the world. One of these minds, the legendary Kelly Johnson,
would bring the world the most technologically advanced aircraft in the world. Putting his mind to the United States’ intelligence-gathering
problem, Johnson went to work on a spy plane with the endurance to overfly the Soviet Union
and photograph Soviet military bases, then return this critical intelligence for analysis. Not only had the Soviets fallen behind in
aircraft and jet engine design, they had also fallen behind in the development of radar
technology. Knowing this, Johnson developed the U-2 spyplane,
a slow, but extremely high flying plane that could fly over much of the Soviet Union and
remain completely out of reach of Soviet fighter planes and missiles both. Taking flight for the first time in 1955,
the U2 soon proved its worth as it boldly flew into Soviet airspace, enroute from West
Germany to photograph the submarine base in Leningrad. .
As the U2 slowly tracked its way across international waters and began to penetrate Soviet air space,
American officials waited with bated breath. Soviet radar may have been less advanced than
American radar, but even their ground stations would have easily detected the incoming U2
from dozens of miles away. Intercepted radio communications told US officials
that Soviet interceptors were in the air, and rapidly approaching the incoming U2. Flying at just a few hundred miles an hour
and equipped with zero weapons, the U2 was utterly defenseless. Flying at 70,000 feet, the Americans were
alarmed when it became clear that not only had Soviet radar spotted the U2, but had actually
been able to intermittently track its course. This was a stunning revelation to American
planners, who had believed that Soviet radar would be unable to accurately track such a
high-flying target for any amount of time. Not only was this assumption now clearly false,
but in fact it turned out that Soviet radar may actually have been a little better than
American radar. Worried officials nevertheless approved the
continuation of the mission, and the U2 continued to fly towards its target in Leningrad. Though unable to accurately track the U2 for
long, Soviet ground stations nonetheless were able to guide interceptors towards the U2. Unable to do anything about the incoming fighters,
the U2’s pilot stayed on course, his faith in the assurances granted him by Kelly Johnson,
the man behind the U2. Mig 17s were soon within range, and their
pilots pitched their noses up to gain the altitude needed to successfully fire on the
helpless American plane. Yet their planes only had a service ceiling
of 54,000 feet, and their inferior air-to-air missiles couldn’t bridge the gap to the U2. One by one the Soviet planes climbed only
to stall out as their engines flared out and then tumbled out of the sky. Having avoided the Mig threat, Soviet air
defense stations received an order to fire on the American plane. Within minutes a half-dozen surface to air
missiles rose screaming into the air, gunning directly for a plane so fragile that a too-steep
turn would rip the wings off the fuselage. Yet as with the Migs, the U2 was too high
up to touch, and Soviet missiles expended all of their fuel trying to reach 70,000 feet,
and then fell to earth. The U2 was a success, and the US could now
overfly the Soviet Union and gather critical intelligence on everything from number of
bombers to missile silos with complete impunity. The Kremlin was furious. And if they were mad about the multiple U2
incursions throughout the mid-1950s, they were even more angry when an American U2 flew
directly over Moscow. So many interceptors were being sent to try
and shoot down the American planes that the photographs the U2 took were often littered
with soviet aircraft tumbling out of the sky. The US restricted its flights of the U2, not
wishing to risk a provocation to war. The Americans believed that the Soviets would
simply accept that they could not stop the U2, and while they lodged many diplomatic
complaints, they never publicly acknowledged the incursions on the world stage for fear
of international embarrassment. American assumptions about the Soviets would
prove terribly wrong however, when on May 1st, 1960, a Soviet surface-to-air missile
brought down a U2 on mission over the Soviet Union. The Soviets had caught up to American technology
and in a matter of a few short years, dramatically improved their missile technology, and yet
the US still desperately needed the critical intelligence that the U2 had offered. With this intelligence, America had an unparalleled
strategic advantage over the Soviet Union, and knew the layout of its military forces
almost as well as the Soviets did themselves. The shooting down of the American U2 was now
an official intelligence disaster, and the US needed a solution. Already in development before the shoot-down
of the U2 in 1960, Kelly Johnson redoubled his efforts on the development of a brand
new spy plane. The Soviets proved that they could track and
shoot down a U2, so Johnson’s answer was simple: we’ll just go faster than their missiles. A lot faster. Johnson had for a few years been working on
a new, ultra-secret prototype airplane. Jet fighters and bombers were still a relatively
new development, having been operational in significant numbers for about a decade, and
now Johnson was designing a jet-powered plane that was decades ahead of anything else in
the sky. Experimenting with a few variants for different
mission types, Johnsons’ secret and very futuristic plane finally settled on a role as a reconnaissance
aircraft, and the first SR-71 took to the sky on December 22nd, 1964. On its first flight the plane reached an incredible
speed of Mach 3.4, and it immediately became apparent that the US had the tool it desperately
needed to keep tabs on the Soviets. Four years later, the SR-71 flew its first
operational sortie, penetrating into North Vietnam and revealing hidden Vietnamese bases. Two weeks later American forces had destroyed
them. The SR-71 continued to fly deep into North
Vietnam, and soon the North Vietnamese and their Soviet advisors grew wise to the airspace
incursions. Not a true stealth aircraft, the SR-71 nonetheless
had stealthy features designed to make it more difficult to spot and successfully track. The first incursions into North Vietnam were
disregarded by Vietnamese radar operators and their Soviet advisors as being artifacts
or equipment malfunctions- nothing in the world could be flying that high and that fast
to be real. Yet the SR-71 was very real, and flying at
three times the speed of sound from an incredible altitude of 80,000 feet. After several of these ‘radar glitches’ it
was clear that something was going on in the skies above North Vietnam- the damned Americans
were at it again. On July 26th, 1968, Vietnamese air defense
stations tracked an incoming SR71. The problem for ground radar was that the
plane was fast, blazingly fast, and this fact combined with stealthy characteristics of
its design meant that by the time radar contact was made, it was typically too late to fire
a missile. Nevertheless, on this day the Vietnamese tried,
firing Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles at the incoming plane. The crew was immediately alerted by their
missile warning indicator, and followed standard missile avoidance protocol- go faster. The plane accelerated to about Mach 3.3 and
the crew held their breaths, would Kelly Johnson’s plane truly outfly a supersonic missile? In moments they had their answer, and flight
976 went on its way completely unharmed. On their return journey back to base, they
overflew the same SAMsite, and were fired on again to the same effect. Later, analysis of the terrain tracking camera
footage revealed that the nearest missile had exploded a full mile behind the big black
plane. The SR71 could officially outfly missiles. Soon SR71 flights took place over the Soviet
Union itself, and frustrated Soviet officials found themselves in the same position they
were in back in the late 1950s- all of their secrets lay bare and exposed for the Americans
to photograph from the sky, and they were utterly helpless to stop them. Salvos of SAMs were fired at the incoming
planes, but each time the pilot simply stepped on the gas and outran the missiles. To avoid interception, the SR71 was equipped
with a radar jammer which would make it difficult to lock on to the plane once in range. This difficulty was further compounded by
the stealthy features of the big plane’s body, and together effectively lowered tracking
and target acquisition range to just a few dozen miles. Even at these ranges though a radar on the
ground may spot the SR71, but would not have a high enough resolution lock to successfully
guide missiles to target. The incredible speed of the SR71 then allowed
it to simply blaze over the surface to air installation, and any missiles fired would
spend all of their energy on just reaching the 80,000 foot altitude the plane flew at,
and then simply fall back to earth. Soviet interceptors proved no better at the
job than their surface-to-air batteries did. Most of them simply lacked the ability to
even get high enough to threaten the SR71 in the first place. To solve this issue, and to counter the threat
of a secret American supersonic bomber program, Soviet designers created the MIG 25. In essence the Mig25 was nothing more than
a rocket with wings, and included very few avionics. Despite being highly touted by the Soviets,
the reality was that the plane could operate only as an interceptor, and even then it had
an effective combat radius of under 200 miles. The max operating altitude of the plane was
just below the SR-71, which in theory would allow for interception, but the plane could
not fly faster than Mach 2.5 or it would destroy its engines. The only hope for a Mig 25 to intercept an
SR71 would be if it somehow managed to get an early enough warning to line up a head-on
shot at the SR-71, and even then its missiles would fail to compensate for the incredible
closing rate of the SR-71 and had no hope of hitting it. When the Mig 25 proved ineffective, the Soviets
doubled down and developed the Mig 31. A vastly improved interceptor, the Mig 31
had a much greater range and operational altitude, and was theoretically capable of intercepting
an SR71. In fact, at least a dozen peaceful intercepts
near Soviet airspace were carried out during the 1980s, and all of these when Washington
had hoped to improve relations with the Soviet Union by ceasing operations inside its air
space. These intercepts led many to believe that
the SR71 had met its match, yet in reality, even the Mig 31 was unlikely to intercept
an SR71 except in the most favorable conditions, and even then it would need quite a bit of
luck. In order for the Mig 31 to successfully intercept
the SR71, it would require the coordination of several aircraft to cover all approach
vectors, thus increasing the odds that at least one would be in the right incoming direction
for the SR71. The Mig 31 would still stall out trying to
get to the same altitude as a SR71, and typically would only get within 10,000 feet, not nearly
close enough for a guaranteed missile intercept. Only by being directly in the path of an incoming
SR71 could the Mig31 hope to shoot one down- and even then it was doubtful. The extreme altitude meant that any missiles
fired would have a very difficult time maneuvering, as they rely on fins to adjust their course
as they fly through the air. The very low temperatures also affected the
proximity fuses on missiles, and made it unlikely that it would detonate in time to damage the
aircraft. On top of this the SR71 itself was armed with
defensive countermeasures that included jammers, and the low radar-reflectivity only confounded
problems for an incoming missile. The most optimal launch envelope for an enemy
fighter would actually be to get directly behind the SR71, where heat-seeking missiles
could lock on the engines- but again, with the Mig31 unable to keep up with the SR71’s
speed, this was an extremely unlikely thing to happen. Even the peacetime intercepts that the Mig31
carried out on the SR71 were only ever truly possible because the SR71’s flight route
was well known to the Soviets. Had the SR71 truly wanted to penetrate Soviet
air space it would have taken an unpredictable approach vector, and it would have been up
to blind luck for the Migs to be in the right place to take their shot. In the end the SR71 served America faithfully
for over thirty years, and despite over a thousand missiles fired at it, not a single
SR71 was ever lost to hostile action. Many myths abound over its retirement in the
1990s, with most people believing that advances in Russian interceptors and missiles put the
SR71 at risk, or that spy satellites were able to do the job of an SR71 and it was no
longer needed. These assumptions are both tacitly false,
as there still doesn’t exist a plane that is truly capable of ensuring a successful
interception of an SR71, and while useful, spy satellites can take up to 24 hours to
get over a target area and have predictable routes in the sky which allows an enemy to
hide whatever they don’t want seen when the satellite is overhead. In truth the SR71 was canceled due to shifting
budget priorities by US lawmakers. In a world without the Soviet Union, few believed
that the SR71 was necessary anymore, and budgets increasingly went to the development of the
B2 bomber and UAVs. Today though with the rise of China and Russia’s
renewed belligerence, a successor to the SR71 is now in testing, and is rumored to hit speeds
as high as Mach 6. Without a doubt the finest aerospace engineer
in history, Kelly Johnson designed and built the world’s greatest spy plane, and even today
decades after his death, the SR71 remains unparalleled in capability. Why do you think the SR71 was really canceled? Do we have a need for spy planes today? Let us know in the comments! And as always if you enjoyed this video don’t
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