Geoff FordenParking Cold War Relics

The two seat SR-71 never got to fulfill its primary mission, thank goodness! Or is it an A-12?

I am never so glad my phone has a camera as when I am in Los Angeles. The city has an amazing density of bizarre and interesting sights just begging to be photographed. Admittedly, most of these were in Pershing Park on my most recent trip but the California Science Center’s parking lot has to have the most unique one. On a small plaque I read that the airframe I have always associated with the SR-71 “Blackbird” is actually two different aircraft (whose airframes do differ but I hadn’t realized the importance of that before). There I learned that the CIA used the A-12 for strategic reconnaissance while the Air Force planned on using the SR-71 for battle damage assessment after a nuclear war. It would fly over the decimated corpse of a country targeted by US nuclear weapons and report back on how effective the attacks had been.

This relic of the Cold War reminded me of a Cold War fossil that I came across recently: the “Dead Hand” of the Soviet Union. This included a constellation of satellites that I believe the Soviet Union put in orbit around the Earth to record and rebroadcast nuclear launch orders after Moscow was destroyed. The “fossilized” remains of these satellites are buried in the “bump” of objects around 1450 km altitude:

The altitude of objects in low Earth orbit. The arrow indicates the orbit of the Dead Hand system

Russia has gone on to continue launching satellites into these orbits as part of a commercial “Record and Broadcast system.” I’m not sure what the business model is for such satellites and if any wonk-readers understand it, I’d be glad to know.

It would be fun to say that these two systems represent the national characters of these countries: the SR-71 represents the “optimistic” US while the Dead Hand represents the “fatalistic” Russians. But I suspect that both countries had battle damage assessment and automated launch code release systems, we just haven’t discovered those relics yet. In any case, I find both systems equally bizarre if in different ways.


  1. GR (History)

    Here’s a pretty good article about Dead Hand. It says they used command missiles to downlink launch data to missles, hadn’t heard about the satellites…

  2. Pavel (History)


    These are Strela satellites, which provided communication for GRU (military intelligence). They never had anything to do with launch orders, Dead Hand or anything like that.

  3. mjsellick (History)

    This just came out Monday, don’t know if you saw it…Dead Hand

  4. Bob (History)

    I just read a very recent article on this from Wired-Online. They wrote about the Soviet’s Doomsday program called “Perimeter”

  5. RAJ47

    “the Air Force planned on using the SR-71 for battle damage assessment after a nuclear war”
    “the SR-71 represents the “optimistic” US “
    How are you describing a nuclear attack damage assessment machine “optimistic”? The analogy drawn is simply preposterous. The damage assessments in any conflict are done to read the battle ground if the desired effect is achieved or not. If not, then the effort on the target is increased. When the SR71 took off on its first flight, the whole world knew the damage any nuclear attack would generate. No one needs to do any “damage assessment” after a nuclear strike, it is already known. The idea, of assessing damage after a nuclear war, itself is so very despicable.

  6. RAJ47

    I am wondering what is the national character of US, if damage assessment after a nuclear war was the primary role of SR-71.

  7. Allen Thomson (History)

    Pavel: While the traditional role of the Strela store-dump satellites is believed to have been support for the GRU, there are assertions that the later Strela-3 system did have some larger command-and-control purpose.


    I have no other information on the Strela-3 system, and thus no opinion.

  8. Bob Reed (History)

    The A-12 was actually a precursor to the SR-71. It was a single seat model, and essentially the same technology, that was employed by the CIA for recon prior to the SR-71’s introduction in the mid 60’s; although the latter is longer to accomodate the second crewmwmber as well as additional fuel.

    Originally, the air force had plans to use the Blackbird (then designated the YF-12A) as an interceptor that would be designated F-12B. Instead, following the success of the CIA’s use of A-12’s over Korea and Vietnam, as well as the considerations for BDA you mentioned, the decision was made to formally designate it as a reconnaisance aircraft.

    It is both beautiful as well as an awesome technical achievement for it’s day.

    Best wishes on your trip

  9. Jeff (History)

    Dr. Strangelove: Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost, if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world, EH?

    Ambassador de Sadesky: It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.

    Life imitates art.

  10. Captain Canuck

    06927 is an A-12 – in fact, it is the only two-seat A-12 trainer ever built.

  11. spaceman africa

    The Dr. Strangelove take on this system is an easy one to make but misses the point of the systems in both the film and real life. This, apparently, wasn’t about ending all human life by creating a doomsday machine. Rather, it was a contingency plan to insure a counter-strike capability if the leadership was decapitated. The article also states that in the end, a human was to give the final launch order. So, the analogy is far off the mark and I personally think making that link maligns Soviet intentions and reduces a very serious bit of war planning into a farce.

  12. Major Lemon (History)

    There is a lovely specimen of a Blackbird at IWM Duxford England. Actually it is a really small aircraft when you stand next to it.
    You can see a couple of interesting images of it here including a close-up of the cockpit.
    Nowadays I suppose satellites do it faster and cheaper.

  13. Maggie Leber (History)

    well, if BDA was SR-71’s primary mission (not a very plausible story, I think) they certainly found other work for it.

    Great book:

  14. Nathan (History)


    Well, the Americans very optimistically thought there’d be someone left after the war to actually fly the thing or receive the info, and the Russians fully expected they’d be quite dead by that time.

    Alternatively, the Americans were extremely pessimistic about their nuclear maintenance workers and weren’t sure if any of the bastards would go off.

  15. bradley laing (History)

    Diplomats have finished negotiating a Security Council resolution that affirms many of the steps Obama plans to pursue as part of his vision for an eventual “world without nuclear weapons.” They include a new worldwide treaty halting production of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium and the strengthening of the global Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has controlled the spread of nuclear weapons for decades but now is in danger of fraying.

    —55 minute old article from washington post website

  16. John F. Opie (History)

    It doesn’t surprise me that the Soviets would build – and still apparently use – this system, given how paranoid they were about maintaining positive control over the apparatus of state security.
    This system allows them to sleep at night, since they were convinced that even in the worst-case scenario that they could imagine, that the US could launch a successful decapitation first strike that would remove the core of the nomenclature, that the world would never forget them and that it would be the Soviets who decided that history was over.

    The question now is: why is it still in use and, apparently, being expanded? As always, capabilities and not intentions…

    and RAJ47: the idea that a nuclear war could be fought as an extension of a conventional war wasn’t and isn’t a western invention, but rather was part and parcel of Soviet military thinking. I know too little of modern Russian military thinking to make a judgment as to whether that is still the case, but given the weapons and infrastructure they are building, it appears to be the case…

  17. Azr@el (History)

    The former union of soviet socialist republics had a severe infrastructure problem. They sought a host of technical solutions to this handicap; one of which was this system. As other commentators have noted this was not a doomsday weapon nor protocol merely an early attempt at command and control of a geographically dispersed nuclear arsenal that stretched across 11 time zones.

    I’ve never seen anything optimistic in nuclear arsenals or their supporting systems irrespective of national origin. The consequences of all out nuclear warfare would have seen the delusions of Communist and Capitalist replaced by nightmares more reminiscent of the death camps of the Reich.

  18. Jeff (History)

    Strangelovian-humor aside, according to some accounts, the Soviet war planners did indeed intend to leave no one alive on the North American continent- their nuclear assault would be followed by their illegal biological weapons, just to make sure. Soviet intentions, IMO, cannot be maligned enough.

  19. Carey Sublette

    Spaceman Africa’s essential point is correct.

    Perimeter is a system to transfer launch authority to a “predesignated national command authority” (U.S. lingo) in the event of an apparent decapitating strike.

    The U.S. made (and still maintains) similar provisions.

    This is not an automatic retaliatory Doomsday Machine.

  20. CB (History)

    The plane in your picture is a trainer. There were 2 or 3 of these built to enable pilots to learn to handle the blackbird, a difficult task. As to whether is it an SR-71 or an A-12, you would have to look underneath and see if it has gunports. Yes, gunports! Imagine a 3000+ mph interceptor. For the record, there was also a “mothership” version which launched a miniature SR-71 shaped drone from between its tails. I suspect it is not an A-12 but without more pics it is not possible to be sure. I have an incredible poster of the Blackbird in my office. It came from the gift shop at Groom Lake and dates back to the early 80’s.

  21. Captain Ned (History)
  22. Anon

    The point of keeping Perimeter a secret would most likely be not to provoke the other side to build a very strong counter-force first strike capability, as that, if successfull, could reduce even the Perimeter-initiated counter-strike to a token attack. If Perimeter was, as the article claims, build as a response to the US SDI program, that would make even more sense, as the SDI as imagined could well have stopped a weak counter-strike altogether.

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