The story of
The Impact of U.S. Aerial Reconnaissance
during the Early Cold War (1947-1962):
Service & Sacrifice of the Cold Warriors

Chapter 2
Page 2 of 5 Pages

The Need to Know
Cold War Aerial Reconnaissance Begins

Early War Plans and Programs

Even while World War II was being waged, U.S. military leaders began to look at the postwar world and what the U.S. needed to do to maintain its position as a world leader. To maintain its strategic domination of the Western Hemisphere and Far East, they determined that one of the most important things needed was for the U.S. to have access to overseas basis. In January 1944, President Truman agreed with their findings and authorized the Joint Chiefs to conduct studies to determine “exactly” what the U.S. required to maintain its position in the world. (14)

World War II lessons, such as the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; the power of strategic bombardment; and the development of atomic weapons all combined to lead U.S. military planners to start thinking in terms of “force projection” and “defense in depth.” In doing so, U.S. military war-planners believed future adversaries would also think in this manner. If our future adversaries attempted to bomb the U.S. directly to keep it from mobilizing, the nation would need overseas bases to allow its forces to interdict an attack from anywhere in the world. Overseas bases would also allow the U.S. to project its power quickly in peacetime and punish an aggressor during hostilities. The bottom line–overseas bases were considered vital.

Initial Concepts:

At the same time, USAAF Commanding General Arnold commissioned studies to assess the impact of World War II’s new technology on air power doctrine. The resulting U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey identified the decisive role of strategic bombing in winning the war. (15) In two reports (one for the European theater and one for the Pacific), the survey participants concluded that:

1. The USAAF was the nation’s future first line of defense against strategic attack;
2. Other nations would develop atomic weapons;
3. Due to the power of “atomic” weapons, the U.S. could not allow another surprise attack;
4. The U.S. must maintain a strategic bomber force; and
5. The U.S. should have an intelligence organization capable of knowing the strategic vulnerabilities, capabilities and intentions of any potential enemy.

In addition to the Air Force’s own self-analysis, and within months after the formal Japanese surrender, national leaders were cultivating other projects, studies and surveys. In October 1945, the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s (JCS) Joint Intelligence Committee began formulating a plan for potential conflict with the USSR. The resulting plan called for a first-strike on the Soviet Union with 20-30 atomic bombs. (17) A JCS paper “Strategic Vulnerability of Russia to a Limited Attack” presented the finalized plan to destroy 20 of the USSR’s largest cities with atomic bombs should the need arise. (18)

On 21 March 1946, the striking arm of this atomic attack–the Strategic Air Command (SAC)–was established under the USAAF. In effect, the creation of SAC was the postwar outcome of U.S. leaders’ confidence in strategic bombing as a tool of national power. Though one of three major combat commands around which the new Air Force would be built in 1947, SAC was the only command equipped and organized for atomic warfare until the early 1950’s. As such, SAC became a “specified command” reporting directly to the JCS. (19)

From information gathered and compiled in the JCS Study, Joint Staff planners created the first atomic war plan titled “Operations for PINCHER.” The development of the PINCHER attack plan revealed a lack of solid intelligence data to pinpoint strategic targets. This led the JCS planners to target 30 Soviet cities as the “vital centers” of the strategic air campaign. (20) In April 1946, the JCS approved a memorandum for President Truman which outlined prospective Soviet moves and necessary U.S. countermeasures. In this memorandum, U.S. military planners reiterated that the U.S. should use strategic power to destroy the Soviet will to resist and cripple industrial capabilities. (21)

A few months later, in June 1946, the three U.S. military service Chiefs of Staff (General of the Army Eisenhower, General Spaatz and Fleet Admiral Nimitz) met and agreed that the U.S. planners should coordinate their strategic attack plans with their British counterparts. Due to the range of WW II-era bombers and the distances involved, U.S. military leaders determined they would need British bases in the United Kingdom, Egypt and possibly India. The resulting consultations between U.S. and UK military planners were held in secret (nothing committed to paper). The final agreement was reached when Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Tedder made five British air bases available for staging of U.S. bombers should war with the USSR be necessary. (22)

The Need to Know:

With the Air Force strategic bombardment, (and later) atomic weapons the mainstay of the nation’s military force and deterrence, new Air Force leaders knew that any plan against the USSR would necessitate a far greater amount and depth of intelligence than they currently had available. To rectify this situation, Air Force leaders instituted new roles and missions for the aerial reconnaissance arm. More specifically, any strategic strike force would need to know a vast amount of specific targeting information, such as

  • Where the target was located?
  • What did it look like from the air?
  • How was it defended?
  • Where were the ingress and egress routes?

To answer these types of questions, aerial reconnaissance would be called upon to provide most of the answers. Soon after General LeMay took over command of SAC, he outlined six essential aerial reconnaissance tasks: (23)

  • Radar scope photography
  • Bomb damage assessment photography
  • Target verification photography
  • Target development photography
  • Procurement of weather intelligence under combat conditions.
  • Procurement of intelligence concerning enemy electronic emissions

The areas much of this attention was initially focused on was the Soviet Far East and North. The possibility of using Alaskan and Arctic bases from which to strike the USSR might be the only option left for the U.S. should its European and Near East bases be destroyed. Aviation pioneer General Billy Mitchell called Alaska the “world’s most strategic place” and said as early as 1935, “Whoever holds Alaska, holds the world.”

General Spaatz agreed and, between 1946 and 1947, pushed for the establishment of America’s forward line of defense in the Arctic. Soviet Marshall Stalin thought along the same lines. By the time Alaska became a state, the Soviet Union had 20 permanent and 31 temporary Soviet airfields throughout eastern Siberia, not to mention seven of the USSR’s 35 airborne divisions. In fact, it can be said that the “active” Cold War struggle between the U.S. and USSR began when the two super powers faced off in the North Pacific. (24)


(14) Leffler, 56
(15) David Macisaac, United States Strategick Bombing Survey, Over-all Report, 30 September 1945 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1976), 107
(16) John T. Greenwood, “The Atomic Bomb–Early Air Force Thinking and the Strategic Air Force, August 1945–March 1946,” Aerospace Historian, Fall/September 1987, 161.
(17) Rhodes, 225.
(18) Walker, 26.
(19) U.S. Air Force History and Museums Program, Case Studies in Strategic Bombardment, Special Study, 98-23457, January 1998, 389.
(20) Steven T. Ross and David A. Rosenberg, America’s Plans for War Against the Soviet Union, 1945-1950, Volume 2: Design for Global War: The PINCHER plans (New York: Garland Publishing, 1989), 4.
(21) Leffler, 112.
(22) Leffler, 112.
(23) Lashmar, 37.
(24) Richard K. Kolb, “Alaska: Cold War’s Strategic Frontier, 1945-1991,” URL:
<>, accessed 12 August 1998.

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