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A-12 Oxcart: The CIA’s Fast Mach 3 Spy Plane (And Almost Fighter?)

A-12 Oxcart. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
A-12 Oxcart. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The Soviets wouldn’t be able to stop it. The idea: take the CIA’s A-12 Oxcart spy plane and convert it into a bomber or fighter. These were concepts the U.S. Air Force was taking seriously in 1961 after the Vienna Summit between President John F. Kennedy and the Soviet Union’s Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The idea came from vaunted Air Force vice chief of staff Curtis LeMay. LeMay thought the Oxcart could penetrate deeply into the Soviet Union and that it would not be discovered during its bombing run.

The Possibility of World War Three Necessitates Invention

LeMay, like many in the U.S. military, was obsessed with what World War Three would look like. Air Force war planners were racking their brains trying to find an edge over the Soviets. LeMay wanted more firepower and survivability after a nuclear exchange.

And he had his eye on the CIA’s A-12 Oxcart. This could be the platform for a bomber that could fly over Moscow and maybe eliminate the Kremlin in one mission.

LeMay also thought that another seat could be added to the A-12 for a reconnaissance officer to conduct bomb damage assessment if the United States ever launched nuclear weapons at the Soviet Union.

What About a New Fighter Based on the A-12?

LeMay did not totally get what he wanted. His ideas did lead to the YF-12A experimental fighter-interceptor. This precursor to the SR-71 Blackbird flew record speeds in 1965 of 2,070 miles per hour with a ceiling of 80,258 feet.

The YF-12A’s mission was to intercept any Soviet supersonic fighter that could evade U.S. Air space and attack the homeland. The YF-12A had three air-to-air missiles and a backseat weapons officer. Only three were built in 1963 and 1964.

The military did not take up the YF-12, but NASA did fly it until 1979.

The Valkyrie Experimental Bomber

Another airplane similar to the A-12 Oxcart that was expected to be extremely fast and able to fly at ultra-high altitudes was the XB-70 Valkyrie. The XB-70 was intended to carry nuclear weapons deep into the Soviet Union. The airplane could fly MACH 3.1 at 73,000 feet.

The first flight was in 1964 and the Air Force bought only two for testing purposes. One blew up in 1966 in a mid-air collision. The Air Force wasn’t sure it could survive against new advances in Soviet air defense technology and better Russian fighters.

The bomber program was canceled, and like the YF-12A, the last XB-70 was sent to the National Museum of the Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

XB-70 Valkyrie

XB-70 Valkyrie. Picture Details: Viewed from the front the #1 XB-70A (62-0001) is shown climbing out during take-off. Most flights were scheduled during the morning hours to take advantage of the cooler ambient air temperatures for improved propulsion efficiencies. The wing tips are extended straight out to provide a maximum lifting wing surface. The XB-70A, capable of flying three times the speed of sound, was the world’s largest experimental aircraft in the 1960s. Two XB-70A aircraft were built. Ship #1 was flown by NASA in a high speed flight research program.


The futuristic XB-70A was originally conceived in the 1950s as a high-altitude, nuclear strike bomber that could fly at Mach 3 (three times the speed of sound) — any potential enemy would have been unable to defend against such a bomber.

Drones Launched From an A-12?

This next project that was based on the A-12 Oxcart was so far ahead of its time that it is hard to believe engineers could think it up. The CIA wanted the workers at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works to design a recon drone that would launch out of the A-12.

Keep in mind, this was 1962, so it was an early attempt at unmanned flight. The CIA called it Operation Tagboard.

The drone was “43 feet long, weighed over five tons, had a ramjet engine, could reach a speed of over Mach 3.3 at 90,000 feet, fly over 3,000 miles,” according to The unmanned craft were meant to self-destruct after use.

Lockheed built 38 drones. The program was canceled after a pilot died when the mother ship crashed during a drone launch.

The A-12 Oxcart: What Could Have Been? 

The A-12 Oxcart had an amazing history that spawned many different airplane ideas for attack, bombing, and reconnaissance drones. All of this testing and research and development led to the advances that were needed to build the SR-71 Blackbird. So, the original musings about arming the A-12 had a significant effect on the history of spy planes.

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Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.