Military Review

A gift from a likely adversary: ​​UAV D-21 in the Soviet Union and China


UAV D-21 on a transport trolley. Photo US Air Force

In 1969, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the Air Force began operating the latest Lockheed D-21 drone. The use of such an aircraft proved to be excessively complex and did not guarantee the desired result. Because of this, flights stopped already in 1971 - only after the fourth launch. However, by this time, probable opponents in the person of the USSR and China managed to learn about new American technology and even study it.

Short exploitation

Development of the future D-21 started in the early sixties and took several years. The timing was affected by the special requirements of the customer and the overall complexity of the project. In addition, at a certain stage, a change of carrier and processing of UAVs was required. Flight tests began in 1964, and by the end of the decade the product went into a small series.

On November 9, 1969, the first sortie took place as part of the Senior Bowl operation. The B-52H bomber delivered the UAV to the drop zone and sent it on an independent flight. D-21B was supposed to fly over the Chinese Lobnor training ground, shoot and turn towards the ocean, where the container with the films should have been dumped. However, a crash occurred in the on-board equipment, and the UAV did not turn.

Having developed fuel, he made an abnormal but successful landing on the territory of the Kazakh SSR. Soon the drone was discovered and sent to enterprises aviation industry to study. The CIA learned the true fate of its UAV only a few decades later.

Aircraft D-21B with a launch booster under the wing of a B-52 bomber. Photo US Air Force

The second and third D-21B coped with the passage along the route, but intelligence could not be obtained. March 20, 1971 the fourth flight took place, culminating in an accident. For unknown reason, the drone fell in the Chinese province of Yunnan, it was discovered and taken out for study. A few months later, Senior Bowl surgery was stopped.

"Black cat"

The first used D-21B accidentally went to Soviet specialists. The machine did not have identification marks, but its appearance and technical capabilities indicated a probable origin. Since the real designation of the product remained unknown, the nickname “Black Cat” stuck to it.

Damaged UAVs were taken out of Kazakhstan and delivered to the Air Force Research Institute. Then, individual components and assemblies were transferred to specialized enterprises of the aviation industry - Tupolev Design Bureau, OKB-670, etc. They had to study a foreign novelty and draw conclusions, including in the context of copying it or creating a similar drone. For several months, Soviet experts established the general features of the "Black Cat", and also determined the approximate tactical and technical characteristics.

During the study, special attention was paid to the design of the airframe: materials, manufacturing technologies, layout and other solutions. Of great interest was the design of the ramjet engine and cooling means, which made it possible to reduce thermal loads. It was not possible to study the target equipment normally, because the self-liquidator worked in the compartment.

UAV flight using accelerator. Photo US Air Force

Soviet "Raven"

During the study of D-21B, it was found that the Soviet industry is quite capable of copying and manufacturing a similar design, or creating its direct analogue with applications of the same or similar materials and technologies. Moreover, it was possible to create a more successful UAV with advanced capabilities.

They decided to take advantage of this, and on March 19, 1971, the Government decided to start developing its own project. The Soviet version of "Black Cat" received the code "Raven". MMZ “Experience” (Design Bureau Tupolev) was appointed the lead developer; also involved other companies involved in the study.

By the end of the year, the crow project was prepared. He proposed the construction of a long-range supersonic reconnaissance drone with flight characteristics at the level of D-21B and a different composition of the target equipment. The Raven was supposed to arrive at the launch area under the wing of the Tu-95 carrier aircraft. Then began an independent flight along a given route with the collection of intelligence of various kinds.

Given the features of the American car, the Soviet "Raven" was proposed to equip a more developed and efficient complex of target equipment. In the instrument compartment, a panoramic camera with enhanced characteristics of the capture and resolution bands was arranged. It was also possible to place a radio intelligence complex with the ability to collect data in all major ranges.

General types of UAV "Raven". Graphics

Own power plant consisted of one ramjet RD-012 with a thrust of 1350 kgf, developed in OKB-670. After dropping from the carrier, the original D-21B was accelerated using a solid fuel accelerator. A similar solution was used in the Soviet project.

The Voron product could have a length of more than 13 m with a wingspan of 5,8 m. The mass at the moment of carrier discharge was 14,1 tons, its own weight without an accelerator was 6,3 tons. The estimated flight speed at an altitude of 23-24 km exceeded 3500 km / h In this case, the UAV could show a range of 4500-4600 km. The total radius of the complex increased due to the carrier in the form of Tu-95.

The fate of the advance project

The development of the general appearance of the Raven product was completed by the beginning of 1972, and soon the further fate of the project - and with it the promising direction - was to be decided. The customer reviewed the presented developments and decided not to continue the project.

In general, “Raven” could become a very effective means for conducting reconnaissance in wartime and peacetime. High flight performance facilitated the solution of basic tasks in different regions of the globe and provided high survivability when overcoming enemy air defense.

Product layout. Graphics

However, there were drawbacks. The main ones are the complexity and high cost of production. Other problems were present. So, the basis of the reconnaissance complex was supposed to be an aerial camera, but this allowed shooting only in the daytime. The proposed RTR systems provided a limited amount of intelligence. The development of fundamentally new all-weather optical and radio systems took time.

There was another factor that called into question the need for aviation intelligence. By the beginning of the seventies, the first spacecraft of this purpose were created, which had a number of important advantages over airplanes and UAVs. They concentrated their efforts, and the work on the "Raven" turned off.

Chinese secret

March 20, 1971 the last of the applied D-21B fell in China. The crash did not go unnoticed, and the Chinese army quickly found the wreckage. At this moment, there was a curious situation. The PLA did not have complete data on American intelligence aircraft and did not know about the existence of unmanned scouts. Therefore, fragments of a characteristic shape were considered elements of the fuselage of the SR-71 manned aircraft. The search for pilots and engines that were absent at the crash site was started.

Searches expectedly yielded no results. Soon, scientists and engineers who arrived at the scene of the accident found that it was not the SR-71, but a completely new unknown machine, without pilots and with one engine. The search operation was turned off and preparations began for the evacuation of the wreckage.

Thermal load on the crow. Graphics

The debris taken out was studied in specialized organizations and made certain conclusions. What happened next is unknown. However, there is no information about the creation of the Chinese counterpart D-21.

Perhaps China tried to copy foreign development, but did not succeed in this matter, after which it closed and classified the project. It can also be assumed that Chinese experts, having studied the “trophy”, soberly assessed their capabilities and the level of domestic industry, and therefore their own project was not even developed. Or the American concept of a long-range supersonic reconnaissance for some reason did not interest the PLA.

After studying (or without it), the debris of D-21B was sent to the Chinese Aviation Museum (Beijing). For many years these objects representing historical and technical value, remained in the open air on one of the spare sites. Later, the broken central section of the fuselage and the center section were brought into an acceptable form and made an exhibit in one of the halls.

A gift from a potential adversary

According to the totality of costs, results obtained, etc. Lockheed D-21 long-range reconnaissance UAV project is considered unsuccessful. In total, 36 disposable drones were built, of which only 4 were used in a real reconnaissance operation. Two of them were lost on the route, moreover over the territory of the probable enemy, and from the other two it was not possible to get containers with data.

The remains of the fuselage D-21B in the Chinese Museum. Wikimedia Commons Photos

As a result of two accidents, the most valuable secret products fell into the hands of Soviet and Chinese experts, which could lead to the most serious consequences. However, further events did not develop according to the most dangerous scenario.

Soviet industry carefully studied the "trophy" and even developed its own version of such a UAV. In addition, based on the collected data, new requirements for anti-aircraft systems were identified. However, the “Raven” did not reach the construction and flights, and the decommissioned D-21 no longer risked falling under the fire of Soviet air defense systems. Chinese specialists limited themselves to studying, without serious practical work.

Based on the results of a study of UAVs received in the USSR and China, they were able to establish the level of development of aircraft manufacturing in the USA and determine the range of advanced technologies mastered. In addition, interesting and promising foreign developments and solutions were studied. All these data were subsequently used in various kinds of own projects. Probably, in one form or another, that data can still be used.

Thus, the UAV D-21 is of interest not only from a historical and technical point of view. This product was distinguished by an extremely curious “biography”. Its creation took a lot of time and required special efforts, and operation did not give any real results. But failures during the application became a real gift to other countries, moreover, it was very useful at that time.
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  1. An64
    An64 16 June 2020 17: 28
    Wow! Interesting. Thank!!!
    It is not clear only how our air defense reacted to the "black cat". It seems that in 1969 there was already a serious air defense system, and Kazakhstan with its training grounds was well covered.
    1. Aviator_
      Aviator_ 16 June 2020 19: 01
      So after all, he fell in the desert, there was no air defense there, and now there is no.
      1. An64
        An64 17 June 2020 09: 11
        so he crossed the border, and the whole border was covered, especially from China
    2. knn54
      knn54 16 June 2020 19: 26
      The ramjet engine allowed reaching speeds of more than Mach 3,6 at an altitude of over 30 kilometers.
      Air defense, apparently, "did not pull" ..
    3. eklmn
      eklmn 17 June 2020 00: 12
      For the curious:
      Original story here:
      And it ends very interestingly:
      ““ But at least no one can blame the Soviets for not being generous. In the mid-1980s, Ben Rich, a Lockheed engineer who worked on the D-21, recalled how a CIA officer gave him a metal panel. It was a piece of D-21 that crashed in Siberia and was found by a shepherd. This piece was returned by the KGB agent. ”
  2. Klingon
    Klingon 16 June 2020 19: 03
    interesting. Tupolev still had Strizh and Reis devices, but with turbojet engines, the layout is a bit similar
    1. iouris
      iouris 16 June 2020 19: 17
      All planes are "a little alike". However, the speed "over 3500 km / h" is a little different from the speed of the Strizh and Reis UAVs. Therefore, the engine is fundamentally different, as in the SR-71.
      1. Klingon
        Klingon 16 June 2020 19: 26
        I wrote, the dviglo in the swift / flight is turbojet, that is, like a cruise missile, so I'm aware of the speed hi
        RS: shark and dolphin are also similar in appearance - convergent evolution, which is in nature and in technology laughing
  3. beeper
    beeper 30 August 2020 23: 33
    This story reminded me of another one that happened to me in the summer in the south-east. Ukraine (either at the end of the 60s, or at the very beginning of the 70s, I can't remember for sure).
    Closer to noon, on a sunny day, my cousin and I brought a bucket of drinking water to the collective farm field for a team of collective farmers who were weeding "rows" of corn from weeds and extra sprouts, that is, it happened in mid-late June.
    Everyone drank water, talked, joked, laughed and stood on the side of the road facing the field, to the north.
    And then, out of the corner of my eye, on the left, I saw a completely silent, at a low altitude, about 50-70 meters, and flying at a very high speed, over the far landing (protective snow-retention forest belt) separating the fields, heading from the south-west to the north-east.
    I still managed to shout to the women and my brother, "Look, the Tu-144 is flying backwards over the landing!", But while they were looking with their eyes, he had already managed, still noiselessly, to become a small point in the distance.
    Now I think that from childhood until the moment I bought my first laptop, I had super-sharp eyesight, I clearly saw two lines under the red line and, at the very bottom of the table, in a smaller print, the typography's inscription, and the villagers were already elderly and had eyes. " not those ", and my brother saw worse, got distracted, did not have time to see the women above me, still a kid, they just laughed, they say, planes do not fly backwards!
    But I perfectly saw a gray silhouette, very similar to a Tu-144 flying backwards, I was closely friends with aviation since childhood, experienced pilots and aircraft technicians nursed me and talked about aviation, and all the photos and drawings of our military (including the most the well-known modern then MiG 21f13) and passenger aircraft (and the new supersonic airliner Tu-144 was then heard and they were proud of it in the USSR!) and helicopters, as well as declassified posters with NATO jet aircraft I had at home!
    And over the village, at different heights (under the clouds, in them and the air-hooligan "shaving"), daily flew some (probably, UTB, well, not Lend-Lease "Mitchells" ?!) two-keel training piston bombers and training AN-14, 24, 26 (one of the "twenty-fourth" somehow very low, right next to the trees of the collective farm garden and the roof of the collective farm farm, suddenly flew at us ... apparently the pilots decided to play a little, demonstrate their skills to their colleagues and local villagers ?!).
    And at high altitude, supersonic fighters drew the sky with white contrails, shaking the surrounding area with regular thunder when switching to supersonic (our yard dog immediately climbed into his booth and did not appear from there for a long time).
    And many fellow villagers still remembered the air raids during the war ...
    So we were all familiar to aviation there and planes were not new!
    But this mystery still does not leave me, I also read about the flights of the American SR-71 "Blackbird", like one of them also flew into the territory of the USSR, but "that" silhouette was not the silhouette of a "blackbird"!
    I think that maybe it was some kind of atmospheric "refraction (in the heated half-day air over a huge steppe space)" - a mirage, because such a tremendous speed and complete soundlessness (I was very surprised),
    low-altitude smooth flight, like a string, and even topsy-turvy, "keel forward" ??! winked
    If anyone has any ideas on this matter, or specific knowledge, then write! 50 years of Soviet secrecy have already passed and, probably, it is already possible to tell ?! wink