When the U.S. military buys aircraft, they sort of subscribe to the “Alton Brown” philosophy of “no uni-taskers in the kitchen”. Our armed services tend to favor multi-role aircraft that can do lots of missions well rather than simply excelling at one thing. It keeps the runways uncluttered.
It’s why aircraft like Lockheed’s F-16 Fighting Falcon remain such a strong presence in flight lines on U.S. bases…it does a very good job at a lot of things. It’s why the F-15 Eagle, even with the F-22’s arrival, will continue to be in front-line service when it approaches 50 years old. It’s still a formidable fighter and, in its Strike Eagle configuration, poses a serious threat to enemy ground forces. And it’s the reason the F-18E/F Super Hornets now serve on carrier decks and the F-14 Tomcats don’t…Hornets were more versatile (well, that’s not exactly the reason the Hornet replaced the Tomcat, and maybe someday we’ll talk about it).
Anyways, in general, versatility is better. But the military, again like Alton Brown, understands the need for single-purpose devices. Alton’s is a fire extinguisher. For years, the military’s “uni-tasker” has been its spy planes. They don’t bomb, they don’t strafe, they don’t fire missiles, they don’t suppress enemy defenses, and they don’t offer close air support. They do one thing: take pictures.
All kinds of pictures. Standard, telephoto, super-close-up, infrared, wide-angle, oblique, read-the-label-on-the-cigarette-pack-from-100-miles-away photos.
For 35 years, the SR-71 Blackbird was America’s primary airborne uni-tasker, and it was exceptional. All of its missions were flown under the strongest shroud of secrecy. Faster than a bullet and able to outrun the Earth’s rotation, it spent a good percentage of its flying life at more than 2,000 miles per hour in the rarefied air above 80,000 feet.
But fire extinguishers for your home are relatively cheap, bullet-planes are not. On more than one occasion, funding for the Blackbirds was eliminated. But political pressures and world events always conspired to bring it back into service.
Until the 1990’s.
The technology to remotely pilot small unmanned drone aircraft gave the military a site-specific reconnaissance ability without the need for Mach-3+ speed, special fuel, and space-suited pilots. And funding the pride of Lockheed’s Skunks Works had finally become too expensive (and maybe they weren’t Y2K-compliant…remember that?!?). So the SR-71 was retired and, on October 9, 1999, the Blackbird lifted off for the very last time.
The reconnaissance side of the military is still largely handled by uni-taskers. Survellience satellites, UAV’s, and probably other top-secret equipment still get the data needed to keep U.S. assets (whatever or wherever they are) safe. But none of them does it with the same combination of beauty and ramjet-powered brute-force speed as the SR-71 Blackbird.
Sometimes, uni-taskers rock!
Recommended Reading: SR-71 Revealed: The Inside Story