Why was production of Lockheed's SR-71 Blackbird halted, given that it was an advanced supersonic jet that was ahead of its time?


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    $\begingroup$ Are you referencing the halt in physical production (that all occurred early on) or the full on retirement of the aircraft, it flew well into the 90's despite not having been produced in almost 3 decades. $\endgroup$ – Dave Aug 4 '16 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ Production stopped because the USAF had enough aircraft to carry out the duties it was required to fulfill - infact, the USAF ended up with enough aircraft for a couple to be permanently based with Lockheed for the duration of its operational life for continued test flights. There was no need to build a massive fleet, because there was no operational requirement for a massive fleet - a massive fleet would also have meant a much larger support budget (more KC-135Q conversions to carry the SR-71s fuel for a start), which no one wanted on their political plate. $\endgroup$ – Moo Aug 4 '16 at 16:41
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    $\begingroup$ So far unmentioned satellite downside: Sophisticated enemies know when to expect the next satellite overflight and can plan accordingly. So far unmentioned SR-71/U-2 downsides: The requirement for a pilot. While vital in many circumstances, humans & their support equipment have high costs. Downed UAVs don't give the enemy a human propaganda tool. $\endgroup$ – JS. Aug 4 '16 at 22:58
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    $\begingroup$ @JonStory Being fast in itself does not make it advanced. It lit up radar screens like a light house, leaked fuel on takeoff, had film cameras, and its aerodynamics are only marginal for it's speed. It all depends on your definition of "advanced" $\endgroup$ – Sam Aug 5 '16 at 15:03

Why did they stop building it?

Because they built 32, and that was as many as was needed at the time. 32 spy planes was plenty for the USAF/CIA to use, so building more would have been a waste. By the time those airframes may have needed to be replaced after 30 years or so, the SR-71 had been withdrawn from service and there was no need to build any more.

I think the question you're really trying to ask, though, is:

Why was it withdrawn from service?

And why wasn't it replaced when it was withdrawn?

The answer to those questions is a bit more complex, but essentially comes down to "Because it wasn't really needed any more."

The SR-71 was designed and built in the 50's and 60's. That means it was designed shortly before the first space flight, and built shortly afterward.

When designed, there was a huge need for a fast, "impossible to shoot down" reconnaissance aircraft. The SR-71 suited that - it could dodge missiles just by outrunning them, and by the time any adversary scrambled a fighter and got to the SR-71's altitude, the SR-71 would be a couple of hundred miles away and possibly even over a different country.

So what happened?

Satellites happened.

Why maintain a fleet of very high maintenance planes and keep them on high alert, then fly them over your rival's airspace? That's expensive, time consuming, difficult, risky, and (quite understandably) tends to upset your rival. It was, in short, an expensive way to annoy Russia and China. Okay sure, it got some reconnaissance too, and did its job (as an aircraft) beautifully, but when times are tense the last thing you need is to antagonise each other.

As an aircraft, then, it was a huge success... but as a geopolitical pawn, and as a military asset? It's a little more questionable. It certainly performed a vital role, but it had negative downsides from doing that.

Fast forward a few years, and we developed reconnaissance satellites with a whole bunch of advantages

  • With a few of them in the right orbit, you can have a satellite over an interesting part of the world pretty much 24/7. Even without that many, you can pass over an area pretty regularly.
  • Less obvious. Okay, your rival does not like you launching them - but once in space they're just "there", there's no antagonising "Oh look, an SR-71 flying over us"
  • They're "fire and forget" for the most part. Once in space, you just use it: you don't need to keep a bunch of pilots and aircraft on the ground ready to fly
  • It's less obvious what you're looking at, and when... if an SR-71 flies over the base that contains your new secret weapon, you're gonna notice. But when a satellite flies over for the 18th time today? Not so much
  • No planning and preparation time (which, for an SR-71, was a huge undertaking). You just start taking pictures, or wait for a satellite to get to the right place, then start taking pictures.

They have disadvantages, too

  • For 24/7 coverage, you need quite a lot of them, and they aren't cheap
  • You have to replace them occasionally (and/or boost them into higher orbits)
  • If you upgrade your camera, it's a lot harder to replace the one on a satellite than an SR-71

But overall, a satellite is a more reliable, less antagonistic way to spy on your rivals. They're not perfect, but you know you've got permanent spying capability with no need to plan your reconnaissance ahead of time.

In short: It wasn't needed anymore.

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    $\begingroup$ Nice answer. One nit-pick: If you need to spy on a new location, it does take some planning to get a satellite over that new location, be it adjusting the location of a geosynchronous satellite, or an adjustment of a lower orbiting satellite, they just don't apparate to a new location. As I said, minor nit-pick. $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Aug 4 '16 at 13:15
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    $\begingroup$ There is one additional disadvantage of satellites vs. spy planes: The SR-71 flew at up to about 16 miles above the surface, usually somewhat less. Satellites will be hundreds to thousands or even tens of thousands of miles away from the surface. Also, the satellite will have to deal with more atmospheric distortion. Thus, satellite photography will usually be nowhere near the photo quality of aerial photography. $\endgroup$ – reirab Aug 4 '16 at 14:41
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    $\begingroup$ As another addendum to your answer, the Soviet Union developed technology such as the MiG-31 and the R-33 missile capable of shooting down an SR-71. Which, according to this article stopped any future overflights of Soviet territory. $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Aug 4 '16 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Random832 Open Skies doesn't work like that. First, each country only has a limited number of flights per target country per year and that number is at most a few tens. Second, each country has the right to conduct the Open Skies flights over its own territory itself, which the USSR insisted on and, I believe, Russia maintains. So, what Open Skies actually means for spying on Russia is that, a few times a year, the US says "Fly one of your planes over this route at this time." and the Russians say "OK" and hand over the photographs of themselves that they took. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Aug 5 '16 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ This answer, in no way, accounts for the fact that the U-2 is still in widespread use. Clearly there is a place in the US surveillance inventory for planes flying around 70k ft, as we still have one. The "it was replaced by satellites" argument is simply wrong. $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Aug 6 '16 at 1:53

For several reasons:

First off, the SR-71 was a plane which was never intended. An earlier Blackbird incarnation, the single seat A-12 had been in service for several years with the CIA under the codename Oxcart. When the veil of secrecy was lifted and the USAF discovered it, the Air Force demanded to be responsible for strategic aerial reconnaissance. Internal politics between the DoD and the Johnson administration facilitated this.

The Air Force expressed interest in the Blackbird for two missions: first, as a long range interceptor and fighter escort for the B-70 bomber project in parallel development at the time and as a high speed reconnaissance aircraft with expanded surveillance and electronic countermeasures onboard. Both roles would require a two person crew in order to operate the systems, leading to a longer aircraft with a second crew station.

The interceptor version of the Blackbird resulted in the YF-12A prototype first flown in 1963. It featured a two person crew as well as cropped nose chines and a conical nose radome for the AN/ASG-18 fire control radar and the recognizance bays were refitted as weapons bays to carry the AIM-4 Falcon air to air missile. The program was cancelled in favor of the XF-108 Rapier aircraft, itself cancelled along with the XB-70.

While the A-12 finished off its service life and was quietly retired to Palmdale and Area 51, the SR-71 would have an outrageously successful career with the USAF despite mixed feelings with the program amongst the top brass. Gen LeMay hated the Blackbird and felt the Air Force should spend its program dollars on bombers, not on a high maintenance speed demon for reconnaissance.

The SR-71 program officially retired in the late 1990s but all throughout its career, Lockheed attempted to sell derivatives of the aircraft for various defense programs. Lockheed submitted Blackbird derivative designs for the F-X fighter program, which became the F-15. And early incarnations of Lockheed's proposal for the Advanced Tactical Fighter, which became the F-22, were based upon the Blackbird.

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    $\begingroup$ LeMay could hate as much as he wanted: the SR-71 first flew in December 1964 and LeMay retired in February 1965. And, while we're at it, [citation needed] for the claim that LeMay did hate the SR-71. Neither the Wikipedia page for the General nor the plane mentions him holding any opinion about the plane, except for being very sure that it should be SR-71 and not RS-71. (Obviously, something not being mentioned on Wikipedia isn't evidence that it's false but you'd expect something that important to be there.) $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Aug 4 '16 at 19:00
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby I'm not the OP so can't point you at their sources for "Hated", but here's some context on LeMay's position on the SR-71. I don't believe he hated the SR-71: rather that he had other projects he preferred (primarily the B-70) goo.gl/ua8oj9 $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Aug 5 '16 at 12:54
  • $\begingroup$ @JonStory Thanks -- that interpretation seems more plausible, to me. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Aug 5 '16 at 13:38

Production of the SR-71 halted, quite simply, because they had built as many of them as they needed (or, perhaps, as many as they could afford). Pretty much like everything else, really.


The SR-71 was a special plane with capabilities beyond what are commonly known. It was also incredibly expensive and was limited by high maintenance costs and special equipment requirements which were housed at only limited facilities. If for instance a blackbird was forced to land at a facility other than one of those handful of authorized and certain equipment was not available to service that plane before it cooled down, it would be required to do a few million dollars in repairs and the plane would be grounded until that work was completed.

At the time of construction, the number of planes needed, plus a few spares were built. No additional units were ever ordered because the equipment to make them and their parts was also very expensive. As no other crafts shared those parts, such as the engines, there was no economical justification for keeping that equipment either, so by the 1970's most of that was dismantled and without enormous expense, no more could be made. Parts were exchanged between planes, sometimes, to keep the fleet operational well beyond its expected life cycle. Because of part deformations through the extreme flight conditions encountered, exchange was not always possible, so sometimes when something like a bolt wore out, a replacement would need to be fabricated because the stock threading no longer even fit, so a bolt might cost many thousands of dollars to replace.

Even with these constraints, the ability to quickly respond to the need for threats meant the SR-71 was kept in service well beyond intended or economical life cycle, until obviously other platforms became available and relieved the need. Those platforms are simply better or a way would have been found to keep the beast in the air. Nostalgia or just pure love for a great design was not enough to justify keeping it active.

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    $\begingroup$ According to Wikipedia, Lockheed was ordered to destroy the production tooling in Febuary 1968. So, yes, by the 1970s, that should all have been gone. Also, this answer mostly deals with why they couldn't restart production after they stopped, and why they finally stopped using the plane, rather than why construction was halted. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Aug 6 '16 at 11:34
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    $\begingroup$ Having worked on components of the SR-71 and with the pilots, I can assure you their are many things in Wiki's and articles about the plane that are not exactly 100% truthful such as what is really the top speed of the plane, but yes, tooling began being dismantled in the late 60's. The big hit was the last engines were build in the 70's and then that equipment was salvaged. In the end, no more were built because other platforms were developed and planned with the intent of covering the need and the ability to build more was intentionally removed to prevent asking for more. $\endgroup$ – dlb Aug 8 '16 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ I'd appreciate some examples on what "million dollars in repairs" would be needed if the airplane wasn't serviced properly immediately after landing. Examples of the high maintenance costs and part deformations would be nice too, if only because I'm curious. $\endgroup$ – Cody P Aug 8 '16 at 16:47
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    $\begingroup$ The operational extremes of the SR-71 were such that components would heat during flight and deform. When they cooled, the parts would be not only temper, they would not return to original specifications. External components typically could not be moved between units. Threading on screws for example would not longer be to original specs so had to be marked during repairs to make sure they were re-assembled in the correct location for proper fit. $\endgroup$ – dlb Aug 8 '16 at 19:26
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    $\begingroup$ Lubricants used in the Blackbird were solid at normal air temperatures. When the plane landed, special equipment had to be available to get it out and into storage before it cooled, and preheat it for re-insertion before flight. If that equipment was not available, the lubricants would solidify and the assembly had to be taken apart and cleaned by hand, then reassembled an expensive and lengthy process with the plane off line until it was complete, relocated to an authorized facility, and declared flight worthy. There were few such facilities, all were originally part of SAC I believe. $\endgroup$ – dlb Aug 8 '16 at 19:32

Also, camera and lens technology and communications tech advanced to the point that a fast-moving plane just couldn't match.

The SR-71 was an angel in the air and a devil on the ground. It took a lot to keep the people safe both on the ground and in the air.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't understand. The SR-71 was a plane that was built solely to carry cameras. The SR-71 wasn't a competitor to cameras: it was a device for putting cameras in the air above things that the US wanted to photograph. Better cameras would make the SR-71 better, not make it redundant. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Aug 4 '16 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, I was wrong to say that the SR-71 was "built solely to carry cameras." It also carried other things. But carrying cameras was a huge part of its mission. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Aug 4 '16 at 19:57

protected by voretaq7 Aug 6 '16 at 3:00

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