Lockheed P2V / RB69A NeptuneDuring the Korean War the US Navy operated a number of specially equipped Lockheed P2V Neptune’s flying ELINT sorties against the Soviet Union and two aircraft were eventually lost on these operations. Later, in the Spring of 1952, a Navy P2V–3W made nine shallow overflights of the Siberian coast to determine what military activity was taking place in that area.
When the Cold War became a reality the US Military began expanding their various roles to include intelligence gathering activities against the USSR. Not to be outdone, the CIA began manoeuvring to enhance and enlarge its own role in this activity and, when necessary, used its influence to have the latest military hardware modified to perform a specific Agency function.
By 1954 the CIA decided that it had the means to support its own world-wide airborne electronic gathering capability. A small team of CIA and USAF officers met with US Navy officials and made arrangements for the purchase of 7 new P2V-7 Neptune’s. The Neptune suited the CIA because it was a reliable, proven aircraft that met their mission requirements and could benefit from world-wide US Navy support facilities. It was also hoped that these 7 CIA Neptune’s could operate unnoticed in amongst the much large number of other US Navy Neptune’s spread throughout the globe. However, the CIA knew that it needed to establish a credible cover story to account for the loss of one of these aircraft on a clandestine mission. Unfortunately the US Navy, reluctant to bear the brunt of criticism should a CIA spy Neptune be lost with their markings, declined to allow the aircraft to operate under US Navy cover. Although the CIA attempted to identify another suitable aircraft, they eventually came to the conclusion that they would have to find another way to operate the Neptune, without US Navy colours.
Using the code name ‘Project Cherry’, later ‘Project Wild Cherry’, in conditions of total secrecy, the 7 Neptune’s were hand built in Lockheed’s ‘Skunk Works’ facility. The aircraft were given standard production numbers and Navy Bureau Numbers but were officially accepted by the USAF. The 7 aircraft were given the Lockheed designation P2V-7U and were allocated USAF serial numbers 54-4037 to 4043. After much persuasion, the USAF Air Material Command eventually came up with a specific type designator for these 7 aircraft – RB-68A and they were delivered in overall Sea Blue, the standard US Navy livery for the type.
Because of a funding shortfall, various CIA departments had contributed funds towards the costs of the RB-68A project and each felt it had a right to have its specialised equipment on board the aircraft. Consequently, the aircraft soon outgrew it’s design load limits and the specialist equipment manufactures were required to redesign the systems to be detachable. This meant that no two aircraft were alike, but that they could be easily configured for a specific mission. The RB-69A was eventually fitted with a variety of unusual systems, one was a huge device which completely filled the bomb bay and could dispense tens of thousands of leaflets in rapid succession, another was a large wooden supply container which could sustain agents dropped from the same aircraft. As it was planned from the outset to parachute agents from the RB-69A, it was decided to investigate fitting the ‘Skyhook’ aerial retrieval system. The first ‘live’ pickup was accomplished in 1958 and at least one RB-69A was modified with the ‘Skyhook’ system. All the RB-69A’s were fitted with a highly sophisticated low-level photographic system using Fairchild cameras in conjunction with arc lights installed in wing-tip pods. A General Electric Side-Looking Airborne Radar (SLAR) was also installed in some RB-69A’s. One of the first terrain avoidance radar’s and a Doppler navigation system were other new technologies first tried on the RB-69A; all aircraft were also equipped with a variety of ECM jammers and sensors, some housed in the MAD boom at the rear. For ELINT missions a crew of 12 was carried, usually consisting of pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, radio operator and 8 ELINT system operators.
Once they came into service the RB-68A’s were all based at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida. Flight tests and pilot training were conducted at a variety of units including Edwards AFB, Palmdale and Shaw AFB. Once the RB-69A’s became operational 5 were dispatched to Taiwan and 2 were sent to Wiesbaden in West Germany. From Wiesbaden the aircraft were used on leaflet drops along the borders of Warsaw Pact countries and for general ‘ferret’ mission where they would stir up the Soviet air defence radar’s and monitor their readiness and reaction. For operations near border areas Polish or Czechoslovakian speaking crews were often used. On occasions the RB-69A’s actually crossed the border into Warsaw Pact territory, to conduct ELINT sorties or photograph specific targets. After the Wiesbaden operation was compromised by an American officer, it was terminated in 1963.
The RB-69A’s from Wiesbaden were transferred to Taiwan to join the other 5 already based there with the ROCAF 34th Sqn, 8th Group at Hsinchu Air Base. The ROCAF RB-69A’s normally flew with a crew of 14 and were painted sea blue, dulled to a dark grey, with gave the aircraft an overall ‘black’ appearance. Some aircraft were even fitted with 4 aft-facing Sidewinder air-to-air missiles on wing pylons to discourage any potential attacker, but they were never used.
As well as carrying out ELINT snooping and leaflet dropping, these aircraft routinely overflew mainland China, occasionally as far as Peiping and Kwangchow. Over 80 penetrations of Chinese airspace were conducted between 1958 and 1960, generally at night, sometimes dropping agents by parachute along with the wooden cargo container from the bomb bay. In an attempt to prevent the continual penetration of their airspace by the RB-69A’s, the Chinese devised one of the first rudimentary AWACS using the Tupelov Tu-4 ‘Bull’ rigged with an AI radar. The most successful system employed Iiyushin IL-28 ‘Beagles’ and Shinyang J-5s to drop flares to illuminate the low-flying RB-69A’s for Chinese MiG 17 fighters. However, two MiG 17PF night fighters were observed to fly into high ground whilst attempting to intercept RB-69A’s.
The first RB-69 was lost to anti-aircraft fire over Shantung Province on 6 November 1961. A second aircraft disappeared over China on 8 January 1962 in unknown circumstances. Another was shot down by Chinese MiG-17PF night fighters, with assistance from the Tu-4, near Nanchang on 14 Jun 1963. A MiG 17PF, aided by flare dropping IL-28’s, claimed another RB-69A near Yantai, Shantung Peninsula on 11 June 1964. Another aircraft was lost en-route to South Korea on 25 March 1960. The fate of the two surviving RB-69A’s is unknown and no examples of this unique aircraft are currently on display anywhere. One rumour is that all the surviving RB-69A’s were converted back to standard SP-2H Neptunes for the USN.
Very little has been released on the operational activity of the RB-69A’s; which given the widespread release of information on other reconnaissance aircraft is surprising. The CIA states it may neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of RB-69A records. That material is classified to conform to an ‘Executive Order in the interests of national defence or foreign policy”.