The United States first successfully orbited national reconnaissance satellites in 1960, but for the next decade and a half continued to seek a reliable means of gaining intelligence in crisis situations. One such effort was the D-21 drone program, initiated by the CIA and later transferred to the National Reconnaissance Office. The D-21 program, although never operationally successful, left a critical legacy for other intelligence and national security programs.
The D-21 drone incorporated a number of technologies that would mature in future defense and intelligence technology programs including: unmanned aerial vehicles, stealth design features, and ramjet engine technology. The D-21 program was also unique because it involved personnel from both the intelligence community and Department of Defense elements, setting an example of collaboration that is more common in today’s post-9-11 era.
This collection of documents is significant for a number of reasons. First, the collection reveals additional insight into the technological development challenges faced by program managers and participants. Second, the documents describe how US defense and intelligence organizations cooperate to confront daunting challenges like collecting regular and reliable intelligence over denied areas, or in today’s parlance, against hard targets. Third, the documents identify the decision points necessary to determine when to continue a challenging technological program and when to discontinue the program in favor of a more promising option for solving a pressing intelligence problem or set of problems.
Researchers who study these documents in detail will gain a greater understanding of the early promise of the D-21’s potential for providing critically needed intelligence. Researchers will also discover that despite the program’s cancellation, it informed and inspired other intelligence and defense technology program development. The D-21 program remains a unique chapter in the national reconnaissance program history, one that will remain of interest to students of the discipline.
James Outzen, Ph.D.
Chief, Historical Documentation & Research
Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance