Week of June 2
On May 31, 1967, the Central Intelligence Agency’s newly developed spy plane, the Lockheed-built A-12 reconnaissance aircraft (codenamed OXCART), flew its first covert surveillance mission over North Vietnam. This flight was the beginning of the top secret Operation BLACK SHIELD. Its primary mission was to observe and photograph sites of possible surface-to-surface ballistic missile installations, which intelligence at the time suggested may have come into North Vietnam from the Soviet Union. The CIA conducted a total of 29 BLACK SHIELD missions using the A-12. The operation was unable to locate any missile sites, ultimately demonstrating that North Vietnam did not possess any ballistic missiles.
The A-12 was meant as a successor to the older U-2 spy plane, which proved vulnerable to Communist air defense systems when one, flown by Francis Gary Powers, was shot down over the Soviet Union in May 1960. Flying faster and higher than the U-2, the A-12 OXCART was able to fly up to Mach 3.29 (about 2,200 miles per hour) at 90,000 feet (just over 17 miles above the earth’s surface). These capabilities allowed it to fly fast enough to avoid being shot down by North Vietnamese (or Chinese, or Soviet) surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Additionally, its design and cutting-edge equipment made the A-12 much less susceptible to being detected by radar. Lockheed built a total of 15 A-12 OXCART aircraft.
For Operation BLACK SHIELD, six pilots took turns flying three A-12s based at 嘉手納飛行場 (Kadena Air Force Base), in Okinawa. Pilots taking off from Kadena flew over North Vietnam and took pictures of suspected missile installations with high-resolution cameras before returning to Okinawa. Their photographs could be processed and analyzed within hours of landing.
Work on the A-12 OXCART program began in 1959, and the aircraft was not officially declared operational until 1965. By the time of its first deployment to Vietnam, in 1967, the earliest intelligence-gathering earth-orbiting satellites—which were totally impervious to missile defenses—were already beginning to fill the role for which the A-12 had been designed. At the same time, the U.S. Air Force was nearly finished with its modified version of the A-12, which became the SR-71 Blackbird. Seeing no need to maintain both aircraft programs, President Lyndon B. Johnson retired the A-12 program almost immediately after the BLACK SHIELD missions ended in May 1968. Two CIA pilots lost their lives due to accidents during BLACK SHIELD: Walt Ray and Jack Weeks.
The A-12 still holds all-time speed and altitude records for piloted jet aircraft to this day. A-12s officially flew a total of just 29 missions. In 2007, the CIA mounted and displayed one of the nine remaining A-12s at the CIA’s headquarters and museum in McLean, Virginia.1
1Gregory W. Pedlow and Donald E. Welzenbach, The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and OXCART Programs, 1954–1974 (Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency History Staff, 1992) (declassified and approved for release on June 25, 2013, accessed via CIA FOIA website at http://www.foia.cia.gov/sites/default/files/DOC_0000190094.pdf on 4/8/14), 274, 304–13; “A-12 OXCART,” https://www.cia.gov/about-cia/cia-museum/experience-the-collection/text-version/stories/a-12-oxcart.html (accessed 4/8/14); Jeffrey T. Richelson, The Wizards of Langley: Inside the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology (Boulder, Westview Press; 2001), pages un-numbered, cited information found in chapter “Dragon Ladies and Nice Girls.”