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World: Blackbirds over Cuba

2 minute read
TIME

Undetected by hostile radarscopes, a flock of Blackbirds began flying at 85,000 ft. over the Caribbean last week, their sooty titanium skins glowing cherry red from air friction as they hit top speeds in excess of 2,000 m.p.h. The planes were Lockheed’s needle-nosed SR-71s on strategic reconnaissance missions that President Carter has ordered to monitor Soviet military activity in Cuba.

If any aircraft can determine the combat capability of the Soviet brigade on the island, it is the SR-71—the fastest, highest-flying and most elusive manned aircraft in existence. So fast does the sophisticated spy plane move that when a pilot starts a 180° turn over Cuba, he completes it halfway to Bermuda. By emitting ECM, or electronic countermeasure radio frequency signals, the Blackbird can efface its image from watching radar screens.

Stationed primarily at Beale Air Force Base in California, the SR-71s last flew over Cuba in November 1978 to help determine whether Havana’s Soviet-supplied MiG-23 fighters had a nuclear capability. The answer: no. U.S. strategic satellites are also used for surveillance. But when their vision is obscured by cloud cover, the job is given to SR-71s, which have cloud-penetrating infrared sensors and cameras that can take pictures at a scanning rate of 100,000 sq. mi. per hr., making it possible to monitor military targets anywhere in the world. Most important are the Blackbird’s ELINT—electronic intelligence-gathering functions that are also known as “ferreting.” SR-71s can detect hidden objectives by interpreting electronic signals at extremely high altitudes. In addition, Blackbirds carry a long-range, side-looking radar (SLAR) that can spy deep into foreign countries without actually crossing their frontiers.

Moscow has been so concerned about the effectiveness of the SR-71s that it has repeatedly made attempts to shoot the planes down over Eastern Europe, North Korea and the Middle East with surface-to-air missiles. They have never made a single kill, but that could change. Entering the Soviet arms inventory is a new SAM called Gammon that the U.S. Air Force estimates has the capability of catching up with an SR-71. A major concern of U.S. defense authorities: if the Gammon is shipped to Havana, it could be bye-bye, Blackbird, over Cuba.

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