There is an image that is in the DoD's public portfolio that truly has me stumped. It depicts Air Force personnel working on an elongated black drone-like aircraft that is reminiscent in shape to the SR-71 Blackbird, but far smaller, appearing to be about a dozen feet in length. After passing the image around a bit, it just doesn't ring a bell with the usual folks, although there were many experimental or low-production systems of this nature built over the decades, so that isn't a huge surprise. With that being said, I thought it was time to crowdsource an answer, which usually comes with fast and accurate results—a big emphasis on usually.
The image has the caption "Technicians conduct a bench test on a diagnostic tow target." The image was shot in 1980 at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, which is well known for its testing mission and its proximity to the absolutely huge Sandia National Labs complex.
The craft appears to have forward-canted ram-air turbine blades on the cones of its nacelle-like bulges on either side of its very small wing area. It also has two outward canted fins on each structure. Its nose is also interesting, appearing somewhat slab-sided, with it attached to the forward fuselage, which appears to be rounded. The craft's rear structure ends in an abrupt, flat-like manner. It isn't exactly clear how this aircraft would be towed, either.
The only markings we see on the article itself are a 7702-4, possibly meaning this is the fourth example of this design, as well as a typical Air Force crest with somewhat unfamiliar art within its borders. It shows a wing-like symbol rising above an atom, which at first glance, points to some nuclear unit having a major role in the object's existence. After further research, we found that his crest belongs to the Air Force Weapons Laboratory (AFWL), a precursor to the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) today.
The AFWL did a lot of work with lasers during this period, including out of Kirtland AFB and in conjunction with the nearby Sandia Optical Range, which later went by the name Starfire Range. Of course, AFWL also worked on a host of other types of programs.
So, what do you think? Does this mystery 'towed target' look familiar to you? If so, what is its purpose? Let us know in the comments below or shoot me an email: