Area 51: US Tested ‘Secretly Acquired’ Soviet Fighters, Radar Systems

Newly declassified documents show US also tested its own aircraft, working on evading radar systems, including F-117, which is now widely used
October 29, 2013 Last Updated: October 29, 2013

Newly declassified Area 51 documents show that the United States–besides conducting secret aircraft work–secretly studied Soviet MiG fighters and Soviet radar systems, both of which were acquired secretly.

Declassified documents about Area 51 were released on August 15, but this new batch released on Oct. 29 adds details about programs not covered in those documents.

Studying Soviet Technology

The U.S. first obtained a Soviet MiG after Israel’s Mossad secret intelligence service worked with a defecting Iraqi air force captain. The captain landed a MiG-21 at an airbase in northern Israel in 1966, and the plane was loaned to the U.S. Air Force from January 23, 1968 to April 8, 1968.

The effort to study the MiG was dubbed HAVE DOUGHNUT, and included looking at the technical characteristics of the plane, as well as its tactical capabilities.

The Air Force studied the effectiveness of the Air Force and Navy combat aircraft weapons against the MiG, including how U.S. aircraft would handle it in air-to-air combat, and also focused on developing new tactics to defeat the MiG.

Another type of MiG, the MiG-17, was obtained in the late 1960s, although it’s unclear how this type was obtained.

The U.S. also tested Soviet-radar systems.

“According to one account ‘a complex of actual Soviet systems and replicas’ grew around Slater Lake, a mile northwest of the main base,” writes Jeffrey Richelson of the National Security Archive, which released the declassified documents. “The Air Force gave the systems such names as Mary, Kay, Susan, and Kathy and arranged them to ‘simulate a Soviet-style air defense complex.'”

Testing Secret Aircraft

In addition to testing secretly acquired Soviet aircraft and radar systems, the U.S. was working on developing secret aircraft of its own.

A main focus was developing or enhancing aircraft to avoid radar detection.

Boeing, Lockheed, and Northrop were among the companies working with the U.S. military. 

The U.S. translated work by Russian theoretical physicist (and electric engineer) Pytor Ufimtsev, which had not been classified, and discovered theoretically how to accurately evade radar through building aircraft with certain dimensions.

That led to two experimental aircraft being developed in a program designated HAVE BLUE. Part of the program, designated SENIOR TREND, was for building the F-117, beginning in November 1978. The program eventually produced 59 aircraft, with the first flight taking place in June 1981. In November 1988, the government confirmed the existence of the plane and released a picture of the aircraft, as well as its designations.

The Air Force has used the F-117 in multiple war scenarios, including Operation DESERT STORM (Iraq); Operations DESERT THUNDER and DESERT FOX (Southwest Asia); the Balkans in 1999; and Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.

Another plane, developed by Northrop with the Air Force and DARPA, was the TACIT BLUE surveillance plane, also known as the “Whale.” 

“The Air Force fact sheet reports that the objective was to ‘demonstrate that curved surfaces on an aircraft result in a low radar return signal’ and states that TACIT BLUE ‘demonstrated that such an aircraft could operate close to the battlefield forward line without fear of being discovered by enemy radar,'” writes Richelman.

“The other, a plane built by the McDonnell-Douglas ‘Phantom Works’ was known as the BIRD OF PREY, after its resemblance to the Klingon spacecraft from Star Trek,” Richelman said. 

“The Air Force declassified its existence in 2002, because, according to the fact sheet, ‘its design techniques had become standard practice.’ The fact sheet described the plane as a single-seat stealth technology demonstrator used to test stealth techniques and ‘new methods of aircraft design and construction.'”

Birds of Prey (National Museum of the United States Air Force)

Read all the documents here