New Air Force team’s shadowy role

Popularly known as Area 51, the U.S. Air Force’s secret flight-test base at Groom Lake, Nev., was rebuilt and expanded in the late 1980s. The frequency of the “Janet” Boeing 737 commuter service that connects the base with Las Vegas shows that the facility has continued to operate at a healthy rate since then. Exactly one program known to have been conducted at Groom Lake since 1985, Boeing’s Bird of Prey stealth demonstrator, has been unveiled. Add to that Lockheed Martin’s RQ-170 Sentinel, which most likely was tested there, and Groom Lake has brought forth a couple of mice, as far as the public knows.

The Air Force lists $11.2 billion in classified research and development funding for fiscal 2013, much greater than most nations’ total defense R&D. About $8 billion of this is what the service calls “non-blue” — that is, funds transferred in kind or as cash to the intelligence community. That leaves $3.2 billion in classified, Air Force-only R&D. The service’s procurement budget includes $17 billion for classified programs in a single line item that is equal to its entire “white” budget for aircraft, missiles and spacecraft. Although the service is the main money conduit into the intelligence community, that does not mean that such funds do not involve Air Force personnel or things that fly or go into space.

A little-acknowledged interface between the Air Force and the intelligence community is the service’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO). Formed in April 2003, the low-profile office reports at a high level, its board of directors comprising the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics (“acquisition czar” Frank Kendall) and the Air Force secretary and chief of staff. It reports in parallel with the longer-standing special programs directorate.

RCO Director David Hamilton joined the office at its formation, after being involved with Air Force special test and development programs for most of the previous 20 years, including six years as director of special test programs at Edwards AFB. Groom Lake operates as a detachment of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards.

The RCO’s patch carries a Latin motto, translated as “doing God’s work with other people’s money,” which points to a funding model that involves connecting the end user — the combat command or intelligence agency that can direct the budget, typically the CIA — with the technology. The patch was the subject of a minor controversy in February, when a military atheist group objected to the wording. It was changed to read “miracles” and then removed from public view after a counter-complaint from Republican congressmen.

According to an Air Force Institute of Technology paper, the RCO uses “a streamlined set of processes that are compliant with all statutory guidance but can receive waivers to burdensome processes, procedures and regulations.”

Although the RCO’s only acknowledged effort is the Boeing X-37B spaceplane, its technical focus can be gauged by the fact that a recruitment notice for its deputy director identifies only three mandatory areas of “significant experience . . . low-observables, counter low-observables and electronic warfare.”

The RCO leads the Air Force’s involvement in the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 program, developed in 2002-06 before being put into service with Air Force and Air Force-operated CIA units. The office rescued the X-37 from limbo: Conceived in the early 1990s and considered for a time as part of the military spaceplane concept, the vehicle had been passed from the Pentagon to NASA and then to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and it had progressed only as far as subscale, low-speed glide tests when the RCO took over.

Since then, the RCO has funded two X-37Bs and completed two test missions, a 224-day flight in 2010 and a 468-day mission in 2011-12. The third mission is due to launch early this month, putting the program well over the billion-dollar mark with $600 million in launch costs alone.

Nobody is saying what the X-37B does. It was designed to do two things: return its payload to Earth and be more maneuverable in orbit than a satellite. It carries an estimated 25-30% of its mass in hydrazine propellant (the USA-193 satellite shot down in 2008 reportedly had a 20% fuel fraction) but can afford to use it at a higher rate because its mission lasts only a year.

Observers suggest X-37Bs have flown on typical imagery-intelligence profiles, and it is understood that they carry a payload that was identified after the initial decision to fund the test program. However, it is an indication of the RCO’s influence that they have flown at all.

— By Bill Sweetman

—┬áThis article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.

  • blight_

    “The service’s procurement budget includes $17 billion for classified programs in a single line item that is equal to its entire “white” budget for aircraft, missiles and spacecraft.”


  • Lance

    I wish the USAF would invest in a fast high altitude Reconnaissance plane. they had a awesome plane in the SR-71 but dropped it for the failed U-2 in the late 90s. Satellites can do alot but are to costly to reprogram or fly at different times. Time for a new too fast to shoot at recon bird.

    • guesty guesterson

      It would probably make more sense to create a spacecraft that can drop some sort of cheap, small, quick to build, satellite… or possibly test a new platform for the “Prompt Global Strike” program. It would definitely make sense to have a vehicle that can already be in orbit with these payloads in its bay waiting to be sent to some terrorists house. they could have multiple rockets floating in orbit waiting to be picked up so the craft would not have to return to earth to reload, thus being able to fire multiple rocket/ missles whatever within minutes and with their locations secure and hidden among space junk.

      • davidz

        That woul be somewhat destabilizing, anything re-entering the atmosphere would be seen as potential nuclear warhead.

    • davidz

      “Too fast to shoot” is pretty much impossible even with scramjet/pulse detonation engine/whatever. Big enough surface to air missile will always be faster and more maneuverable. Probably every ASAT – capable missile will do the job, especially when the plane can be detected from very big distance because of huge heat signature and plasma reflecting radar waves.

    • David

      U2 failed? Not exactly, and the U2 came about before the 90s. The SR71 was retired because a new and still classified plane took its place. Some people believe that plane has the code name Aurora.

      • Ben

        The Aurora stuff is highly speculative and should definitely not be regarded as fact.

      • Speedy

        A friend of mine (A private Australian defence industry engineer) was over the US about 10 years ago (Something about a fix for Aegis radar he worked out in his spare time). After his all expenses paid trip (US DoD), he popped over to near Groom lake and had a look. He still tells us stories about the plane doing high speed loops above the base. Faster than anything at the time should have been able to.

        Makes me wonder two things: Why don’t the groom lakes people have charge of the JSF? (It would be built, and work.) and What else do the fly boys and gals have that we do not know about yet.

      • Godzira

        Actually the SR71 was replaced by Global Hawk. Why put humans in reconnaissance missions over enemy territory?

      • Bill

        The SR was retired because of satellites, the brass didn’t know the source of the intel and didn’t realize the replacement ( satellites ) couldn’t respond as fast as the SR. Lance is correct about that part but very wrong on the “failed U-2.” It’s been upgraded constantly since the 60’s and still is the premier manned recce acft. Ben is also correct about the Aurora and David is wrong. Signed “been there done that”.

    • tmb2

      The U-2 has been doing ISR flights almost nonstop since 1960. What part of it is a failure?

      • Lance

        2+ shot down no SR-71 shot down is what I mean. You couldn’t fly no U-2 over Syria Iran China or Russia w/o seeing shot down.

        • SecretSquid

          You define failure in a very short-sighted way.

    • tiger

      We have UAV’s. We don’t need a Mach 3 + photo recon plane anymore. Nice toy, great tech, but low on the need list.

  • JE McKellar

    I heard the thing was designed to carry nukes, a sort of Air Force equivalent to the Navy’s SSBNs. Of course, that just seems like an obscene waste of money.

    • Ben

      Nukes would be waste because we’d never use them.

      More likely it’ll carry JDAMS of some kind for emergency fast attack opportunities. You’d be able to drop a bomb or two anywhere in the world and nobody would be able to defend against it. Falcon HTV-2 can kiss my ass.

    • tiger

      Why would you need a mini shuttle to carry nukes in orbit?

  • Woody

    I am convinced there is a “Aurora” plane already, the way the skunkwerx were able to keep the 117 a secret so long is all the evidence thats needed… they say now the 117 is obsolete?….maybe for the US, not against everyone else…..right?….

    • Woody

      Plus space is the next obvious endeavor for the spooky dudes out in the middle a nowhere……

    • Guest

      The Stealth Choppers in Pakistan anyone!! That came outa left field. I wouldnt be suprised to see Skunkworks/Area 51 all over that one.

    • tiger

      We have moved on from the 1st gen tech stealth of the F-117A. Plus they were a handful to fly.

  • ffjbentson

    The space plane’s first orbital mission, USA-212, was launched on 22 April 2010 using an Atlas V rocket. Its successful return to Earth on 3 December 2010 was the first test of the vehicle’s heat shield and hyper sonic aerodynamic handling. A second X-37 was launched on 5 March 2011, with the mission designation USA-226; it returned to Earth on 16 June 2012. On 12 November 2011 a couple of large explosions on an Iranian missile base SW of Tehran killed several of Iran’s top missile development scientists. On 28 November 2011 a huge explosion destroyed a large portion of the Iranian uranium conversion facility in Isfahan. Ummm.

  • Jack

    Easy come, easy go. Typical gov’t spending.

  • vrns

    i think, in his kind of nature, the x37 could be used as a suborbital weapon platform. but if it is true, then it is just the beginning… there was a anime, called Moonlight Mile, wich drawed a theory, that US and China having already secret military force in space, with military space stations. it was a quite interesting story, but i think the first step to realize that scenario is begun with the deploying of the x37

  • oldtimer
  • Woody

    In actuality no one can really know what the those sneaky and spooky dudes out there at area 51 have in the works or are flying around…..not until we have some kind of “incident” or a instance where the military has to become involved and need to try out their new toys to see how they do against a real adversary…….the things out there in the Skunkwerx would just freak us all out as to how good American minds are and how far ahead the US is in defense matters…..I mean no other country has anything close to the F-22 or F-35….hell they cant even defeat the F-15 or F/A-18’s…

  • HalP

    I’ve always wanted to believe a primary or more likely even a secondary purpose is satellite turkey shoots. That’s me having fun.

    But what do I know. Like Woody said above, there’s more than a couple of spooky things flyin’ around that somehow stays secret.

  • PrahaPartizan

    This project always appeared to be the resurrection of the old Boeing Dyna-Soar program the Air Force had pursued back in the 1950s and 1960s. Back then they were going to place the orbiter on top of a modified Titan 2 (like the launch vehicle used for the Gemini program) because the Titan 2 could lift more than the Atlas (used for Mercury) vehicles available at the time. Martin Marietta went on to develop the X-24 lifting body designs whose technology ultimately got transferred to the Space Shuttle program.

  • Thomas Fox

    Me and my gf (fiancé now) were on our way to vacationing on the Southern end of Assateague island at Chincoteague Va. In July 2010. On the way to Chincoteague you drive past the Wallops Island Flight Facility. Wallops Island is an interesting place. There’s usually not much to see…lots of large Satellite dishes, a control tower, the occasional U-2 spy plane in various configurations. Wallops also was one of only a few designated Space Shuttle emergency landing sites-it boasts a 9000 ft runway that locals tell that is being lengthened by several thousand feet…hmm. Anyway, back in July of ’10 while riding past Wallops I noticed a strange looking craft on being towed on or near a runway-it was a smallish aircraft that I thought resembled a mini Shuttle-I I figured it to be some type NASA x-plane and though I looked up x-planes I was unable to find one that resembled this thing. /// Jump ahead to November of same year-once again heading to Chincoteague to spend Thankgiving and the weekend and to watch the snow geese that winter on the refuge there. The day after Thanksgiving my gf and I were partying it up at local deck bar and I struck up a conversation with a gentleman approx my age sitting next to me. Turns out he was/is an Air Force Lt. Col. on his final day of Temp Duty Assignment on Wallops Island. The next day he was heading back to his home base of Vandeburg CA after spending the last 4 months at Wallops. I asked the light Colonel what his job was-told me he was a Payload Spec. We made small talk and bought each other a couple rounds of shots and beers and just on a whim described the the strange looking aircraft I saw several months earlier. The Colonel nodded his head and seemed interested. He went on to tell me I was lucky to have caughten a glimpse of a very classified program called the X-37. I am prior Service myself and I could tell the Colonel was getting buzzed and I cautioned him about telling me things he shouldn’t. He went on to explain that yeah though he held a “top secret, plus” clearance he had a certain amount of wiggle room. The Colonel proceded to tell me that the X-37’s was like a sports car in the sky-able to zip around in orbit to execute its primary mission which is to attach itself to an adversary’s “space assets, their sattelights” and to nudge, to push them off orbit or out of orbit if they wanted. He also went on to say the 37 was able to carry various sensors and…he hesitated. I asked him if the 37 ever took out a sattelight and at this point he seemed again, hesitant ( I think he over spoke) and told me that that he wasn’t able to talk about and changed gears on me by asking me and my gf questions like did we see a lot of geese, etc, that sort of thing and shortly later we exchanged goodlucks/best wishes shit and he left. It was interesting to talk to a man that there is no doubt in my mind that knows things that would probably blow our minds.

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  • planewatcher

    Thomas fox is a liar. they dont leave U2’s out where people can see them driving by…duh..

    As for the rest of you and the author, the XB series is a red herring. We have mission ready combat craft that can get up off an airstrip and/or carrier and go straight into space, deliver whatever laser guided curses are needed, and return. For those really familiar with American military airpower (not just in their fantasy worlds), its not that hard to see.

    And BTW if you think the USAF just decommissioned the fastest aircraft ever built without a suitable replacement… you are just plain stupid.

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