What a Secret: The U.S. Used Super Fast Mach 3 Drones to Spy on China’s Nuclear Weapons
btween 1969 and 1971, the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office deployed super-fast spy drones over China in an abortive attempt to spy on Beijing’s nuclear program.
The NRO on March 21, 2019 declassified scores of five-decade-old records documenting the development, deployment and termination of the “Tagboard” drone system.
Tagboard’s air vehicle was the Lockheed-made D-21 drone. It was an impressive example of brute-force, mid-century engineering.
Made of titanium and weighing 12 tons, the 19-feet-wingspan D-21 in its early forms launched from atop a special variant of the A-12, the CIA’s version of the Mach-3 SR-71. The A-12 in essence was the booster for the drone, climbing to 80,000 feet of altitude and accelerating to Mach 3.3 before separating from the pilotless vehicle.
The D-21’s ramjet engine took over, allowing it to cruise at three times the speed of sound for aas far as 3,000 miles. A 300-pound Hycon HR 335 camera peering through the drone’s lower fuselage could capture 5,600 exposures covering an area 16 miles wide and 3,900 miles long.
The drone followed a pre-programmed flight path and maintained only intermittent radio contact with the launch plane that allowed an operator to monitor the drone’s performance. As it reached its final waypoint, the D-21 jettisoned a capsule containing its exposed film then self-destructed.
The film descended on a parachute. The plan was for a special JC-130 transport plane to snatch the parachute in mid-air. Failing that, a Navy ship could fish the capsule from the ocean.
The military and intelligence communities in the late 1960s hoped the D-21 would help the United States to spy on strategic targets more reliably than a satellite could do at that time, and without risking a human pilot.
“The Tagboard drone provides a unique technical capability to satisfy national requirements to conduct imagery reconnaissance operations against targets hostile or potentially hostile to the United States,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff explained in a September 1969 memo.
“In view of the political sensitivity to overflight of certain denied areas, such as China, by manned collection systems and the technical and other limitations of the current satellite program, the Tagboard operational capability has been developed to collect against objectives of national interest located in areas where manned operations could provoke incidents potentially embarrassing to the United States.”
But it was a complex and costly system. Two A-12 launch planes and 20 drones cost $440 million in 2019 dollars. A fatal crash during a July 1966 abruptly ended the effort to combine the A-12 and D-21. The NRO added a rocket booster to the D-21 and migrated the system to a small fleet of lightly-modified B-52H bombers.
By 1969 the D-21 was ready for action. China had tested its first atomic warhead in 1964. Washington was very interested in