Quiet USAF Organization Fields Covert Spycraft

Putting exotic sensors on transports, bombers and drones allowed creation of an airborne intelligence force

When special missions demanded rapid fielding of new technology without publicity -- from spying on Eastern Europe in the 1950s to spoofing Yugoslav air defenses during the 1999 Kosovo air campaign -- desperate operational planners have turned to the U.S. Air Force's low-profile Big Safari program for help.

Often the work was done with minimum paperwork and streamlined budget processes. As a result, among technological insiders Big Safari has an impressive reputation. But chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and even Air Force chiefs of staff have learned about the organization only after taking command and being confronted with the need to rapidly solve a major technology problem. Then someone on the staff will come forward and whisper a few words about an office specially designed for quiet innovation. Its main offices are now tucked away behind a phalanx of security guards at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. The new building is within a mile of the U.S. Air Force museum where some of Big Safari's exotic aircraft (like B-57F and drones that flew over North Vietnam) are now being collected and restored.

Despite erratic budgets and wild swings in the political climate, Big Safari has proved its value for 48 years by turning innovative ideas into operational systems on both manned and unmanned aircraft. Using a Hollywood analogy, Big Safari is the producer that brings together the management and scientific talent, new technology and money to solve a particular problem. Even today the office employs only 200 people, has a modest annual budget of about $800 million and manages 26 programs involving 32 different types of aircraft.

The office specializes in fast-response, low-cost, limited-production programs. But there have been a few exceptions. During the Vietnam War, Big Safari officials helped organize production of about 1,000 unmanned reconnaissance aircraft that gathered intelligence about North Vietnam from high altitude during the summer and from low altitude during the winter monsoons. Along the way, new add-on payloads gathered Vietnamese communications and electronic equipment signals, and jammed radars. The office also managed the production of 22 large-wing, high-altitude B-57Fs that were used for a mission similar to that of the U-2. What is remarkable, given traditional acquisition cycle times, is that only eight months elapsed from program start to first flight for a virtually new aircraft.

Big Safari's specialty has been intelligence gathering, most often optical, and radar and electronic reconnaissance, but the office also has developed areas of expertise in electronic warfare and most recently in information operations. Without official confirmation, Big Safari is known to be deeply involved in the technologies that will deceive enemy leaders with real-time communications and electronic pictures. At a recent Washington air show, an EC-130 Compass Call crew posted a sign openly touting the aircraft's role in information warfare.

In one of its higher profile roles, Big Safari manages the Pentagon's most important electronic warfare aircraft. These include the Air Force 55th Wing's RC-135V/W Rivet Joint (electronic intelligence gathering), RC-135S Cobra Ball (missile intelligence) and RC-135U Combat Sent (precise electronic signal analysis). Also in Big Safari's portfolio are the EC-130 Compass Call (communications jamming) and Commando Solo programs (jamming and radio-television intercept and transmission) which have branched out into information warfare and operations.

Big Safari put formations of target drones (emitting signals to look like U.S. strike aircraft) in the air to spoof Iraqi air defenses during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf war, and two years ago the office took over program management of the Predator unmanned aerial vehicles. In only 45 days, laser target designators were put on the UAVs for use in the Kosovo conflict.

Over the years, the office has progressed from dealing with the difficult but relatively straightforward task of putting the world's largest aerial camera into a C-97 transport in the mid-1950s to peer into Czechoslovakia and East Germany to gathering and altering the most intimate electronic conversations of enemy leaders to guide their perceptions.

Sometimes Big Safari's projects are humanitarian instead of combat-related. In 1966's Project Deep Heat, an RB-57 with a Texas Instruments RS-10 infrared mapping system charted extensive underground coal fires beneath Scranton, Pa. The positive IR imagery was correlated with street map overlays so that city planners could analyze and attack the fires. Recently, specially modified C-130s were used in Mozambique to locate flood victims.

And occasionally Big Safari's ideas don't fly

In 1967 North Vietnam was still being bombed, and the area around Hanoi was heavily defended enough to give pause to ordering in aircrews. An idea was floated to take some of the hundreds of T-33s in storage at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, and modify them at a cost of about $12,000 each to fly one-way-drone or cruise-missile-type missions. The proposed QT-33 would have had additional hip and cockpit fuel tanks to attain the necessary range. It would have taken off at 5,000 lb. over its normal gross weight. A small television camera in the aircraft's nose would have been linked to a monitor in a DC-130 to provide guidance to targets in the Hanoi area. (DC-130s were already in theater operating Lightning Bug drones.) The idea was turned down by the Pentagon, however, and the T-33s were sold for $7 a ton as scrap.

Several phrases are used by insiders to describe Big Safari's philosophy: low profile, cradle-to-grave, minimum but adequate, off-the-shelf, modify don't develop, and provide the necessary, not the nice to have.

Currently the Big Safari office falls under the Aeronautical Systems Center's reconnaissance aircraft systems group and reconnaissance system program office. It has detachments in Texas and California and perhaps a score of customers that include the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Air Intelligence Agency and several foreign military customers.


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