Lockheed Corp., the defense contractor with a 30-year track record building high-altitude spy planes, could be at work on a new, stealth reconnaissance plane, industry and defense experts said last week.

The Calabasas-based company could be developing the plane — tentatively dubbed the “Aurora Project” — at its Skunk Works research and development facilities in Burbank or Palmdale. Experts say the plane is intended to replace Lockheed’s SR-71 Blackbird, the reconnaissance aircraft retired by the Air Force in 1990 after 24 years of service.

The highly secret Aurora program, if it indeed exists, would be funded through the Defense Department’s classified “black budget,” which is hidden from public scrutiny. At stake for Lockheed could be billions of dollars in revenues in revenues and hundreds of Southern California jobs.

“There is a high degree of likelihood that Lockheed is developing, and has been developing for some time, a high-altitude aircraft,” said Lawrence Harris, a leading defense industry analyst with Kemper Securities Group in Chicago.

Neither the Pentagon nor Lockheed would comment on the possibility of a new generation, long-range reconnaissance plane.

Nevertheless, there are compelling reasons that prompt industry and military budget experts to say Lockheed is designing the aircraft. Chief among them are the government’s faith in Lockheed’s management, the strategic military need for spy planes and mysterious budget items.

Much of the speculation can be traced to the 1986 and 1987 Department of Defense budgets, which carried line items marked Aurora, according to Tim Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of a book on the Pentagon’s black budget.

In 1986, the Aurora project had an $80 million allocation and the following year $2.3 billion was budgeted, according to Weiner. In 1988, Aurora disappeared from the military budget, which now totals about $274 billion. Historically, 10 percent of Pentagon’s spending plan is earmarked for “black” programs.

Conjecture also surrounds unidentified “other” items in Lockheed’s own budget.

Lockheed, in its 1990 annual report, reported that its aeronautical systems division took in $967 million in “other” revenues. In 1989, the company received $983 million in “other” revenues; in 1988, the listed figure was $882 million. In 1987 and 1988, the company disclosed “other” revenue totaling more than $1.9 billion.

In 1990, Lockheed had total sales of almost $10 billion, 75 percent of which came from the U.S. military. Lockheed spokesman Scott Hallman said most of the revenues listed under the “other” category were from the company’s C-130 (cargo plane) program. But Hallman acknowledged that revenues for the secret SR-71 project had been listed in the “other aircraft and support” category during its development.

Also, Harris, of Kemper Securities, said he has done a breakdown of the aeronautical division’s unidentified revenues and found “unexplained components.” He said “unexplained components” totalled $25 million in 1987, $150 million in 1988, $325 million in 1989 and $425 million last year.

Another factor supporting Lockheed’s Aurora involvement is its success on similar projects and its current standing as a military contractor.

Just last month, Lockheed led a team of companies that won a hotly contested contract from the Air Force to produce a new-generation advanced tactical fighter jet — a deal that could be worth up to $95 billion in new business for the companies. Components for that plane were made and tested at Skunk Works.

In addition to the SR-71 and the famed U-2, the Skunk Works developed the TR-1, another high-altitude reconnaissance plane. All of those aircraft, built in secret during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, were completed close to schedule and budget, Lockheed officials like to boast.

One of the Skunk Works’ more recent secret projects was the F-117 Stealth Fighter, the $42.6-million-a-copy aircraft credited with helping the Allied Forces score a quick victory in the Persian Gulf War. Lockheed was able to keep the F-117 secret for about 10 years — including seven years of flight testing — before the Air Force acknowledged its existence several years ago.

Another reason Aurora may be in the works are the constraints that even advanced satellites have in tracking military movements. Though state-of-the-art satellites have tremendous photographic range and can see through clouds, defense analysts note they are extremely expensive, hard to maneuver and follow a predictable trajectory.

“I don’t believe the Air Force would so readily give up the SR-71 if they didn’t have something better in place,” said defense analyst Kevin Pedraja, of the non-profit Business Executives for National Security in Washington, D.C. “The defense cuts are a big problem but strategic reconnaissance has always been a high priority issue no matter how much the budget is cut.”

The Pentagon has acknowledged that modernized versions of both the U-2 and TR-1 performed surveillance duties during the Iraq war, though details are sketchy.

John Pike, director of space policy for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, and a noted authority on secret military programs, said “a case could be made” that Lockheed is doing work on a newer, swifter version of the SR-71 that can elude high-altitude missiles.

“The standard story on Aurora is that it’s an airplane that is flying or will be doing so shortly. My gut feeling is there is no such plane,” Pike said. “On the other hand, there is clearly some research on it. Part of the case for Lockheed’s work on Aurora is that if they aren’t working on it in Skunk Works, what are they working on?”

One reason the Aurora project is so hard to gauge, Pike said, is the Pentagon’s insistence in the late 1980s that there would be no new plane to replace the SR-71; costs for that plane were never disclosed.

Jeffrey Richelson, author of numerous books on U.S. intelligence and espionage activities, said plans to build a successor to the SR-71 were advanced by Lockheed but then scrapped in the mid-1980s by the Defense Department, perhaps because of U.S.-Soviet rapprochement and budget pressures.

“Retiring the SR-71 was a mistake, but my best guess is that there isn’t anything immediately coming down the pipeline,” Richelson said.

Should Lockheed be at work on Aurora, most likely on a long-term research and development contract with the government, it could be teaming up with Seattle-based Boeing Co., Pike said. Boeing declined to comment but the company is a partner with Lockheed on the advanced tactical fighter project.

In addition, Boeing developed in the 1980s, at its own cost, a high-altitude, long-range, reconnaissance aircraft called Condor. A Boeing spokesman said the military has indicated it may be interested in moving that aircraft into development.

According to a November 1988 New York Times article, the Aurora would have capabilities greater than those of the SR-71, which still holds a variety of speed and endurance records and could photograph a 100,000-square-mile area in one hour.

The Aurora would be able to fly at altitudes in excess of 100,000 feet with a speed of 3,800 miles an hour, or fives times the speed of sound. The SR-71 — which photographed U.S. bombing targets for the 1986 raid on Libya and the 1983 Grenada invasion — could fly at 80,000 feet at three times the speed of sound.

Like the SR-71, the new plane would probably be based at Beale Air Force Base in Northern California or at “forward” positions in England and Japan. Unlike the Sr-71 or the older generation U-2, however, the Aurora would be capable of mid-air refueling, giving it a much wider range. Some of the same stealth technology used in the B-2 bomber and the F-117, like the use of radar-absorbing services, would be built for the Aurora, the article said.

copyright Los Angeles Business Journal