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

Chapter 3
Page 3 of 6 Pages

Answering the Call

Worldwide Efforts, Overflights, and Allied Support

While aerial reconnaissance efforts and support to the UN and U.S. forces in the Far East were taking place, U.S. military preparations around the world also dramatically increased. Leading this effort was the belief that the USSR would stage a second (main) attempt to overrun Europe. Since U.S. strategic war plans still relied on air attack and atomic weapons as the main option for war with the Soviets, war-planners required much more pre-hostility intelligence. The lessons being learned by aerial reconnaissance assets in Korea assisted in revising tactics and collecting this critical intelligence.

Overflights versus Periphery Missions:

Early U.S. aerial reconnaissance can be grouped into several types or categories, such as: Strategic versus Tactical assets; SIGINT versus PHOTINT missions; and exploratory versus continuity, to name a few. An important distinction to make when referring to aerial reconnaissance is where these missions were tasked to fly, basically consisting of peripheral versus overflights. Several considerations come into play in differentiating the two. Due to the political sensitivity of flying over another nation’s sovereign territory, neither President Truman nor Eisenhower took overflights lightly.

Planned aerial reconnaissance overflights were therefore more tightly controlled than periphery flights. Most overflights were ordered at the highest levels because national leaders were unable to get critically needed intelligence from any other source. An example of this was the U-2 overflights, in which President Eisenhower personally approved individual overflight paths and time periods in which they were flown. Sometimes, as during the Korean War and other periods of crisis, field commanders were given the authority to approve specific types of reconnaissance flights. Some military leaders did authorize some shallow overflights and some peripheral missions accidentally or purposely strayed off course.

No less important to military planners and leaders were the peripheral flights flown outside or off of national borders, usually over international water or friendly territory. Most of these missions were grouped under the Peacetime Airborne Reconnaissance program (PARPRO). PARPRO missions probed the adversaries’ defenses and additionally responded to national intelligence tasking. The majority of aerial reconnaissance flights conducted during the early Cold War were peripheral flights.

As noted earlier, the invasion of South Korea signaled an imminent global conflict to U.S. leaders. In keeping with recent WW II history, a surprise attack on the U.S. was one of the nation’s key concerns. Now that the Soviets had shown they had the ability to produce atomic weapons, their ability to conduct a surprise nuclear attack was the most critical intelligence concern. It was this grave concern which led President Truman to authorize the first overflight in late December 1950. (68)

British Partnering:

As part of preparation for the U.S./USSR conflict in Europe, aerial reconnaissance was needed to map all of Western Europe. SAC planners required radar scope imagery of strategic European cities should the Soviets overrun them and the U.S. needed to bomb them. The U.S./UK relationship extended into preparedness for this global conflict. In addition to working with the British to develop a joint nuclear air strike capability, the two nations also developed a joint aerial reconnaissance program. The reelection of wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his conservative party at this juncture greatly enhanced this cooperation.

As the junior partner with fewer resources, the UK accepted more of the risk in this partnership. The U.S. provided RB-45 aircraft and training to Royal Air Force (RAF) crews with whom they would conduct strategic overflights of Eastern Europe and the Western USSR. The subsequent intelligence collection would be shared between the USAF and the RAF. On the night and early morning of 17-18 April 1952, three RB-45’s painted in RAF colors took off from England, air refueled and entered Soviet air space at three different locations in northern, central and southern areas of the Western USSR. All three missions photographed and collected radar images of Soviet Long-Range Aviation (LRA) and defense bases. These would be bases which would need to be destroyed first at the onset of any U.S./USSR conflict. (69)

In preparation for European conflict in early 1952, the Commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe (USAFE) requested an aircraft equipped to collect PHOTINT of Soviet and East German military assets from the Berlin air corridors. Due to the sensitive nature and location of the mission, the USAF had a 20-foot focal length camera installed in the cargo hold of a YC-97A transport aircraft. The subsequent project called Operation PIEFACE proved so successful that by the summer of 1952 it was used throughout Europe by the USAFE. This first RB-97 marked the beginning of the BIG SAFARI program. A program which would eventually lead to converting the U.S. aerial reconnaissance fleet from bomber to transport airframes. (70)

By the summer of 1952, the Chairman of the JCS (General of the Army Omar N. Bradley) and the Director of the CIA (General Walter Bedell Smith) both felt overflights of Siberia were required to validate indications it had collected that new Soviet jet-powered Mya-4 bombers were being staged at various Siberian locations. The CIA and DoD intelligence analysts predicted the USSR had the capability to load Mya-4’s with atomic weapons, thus making devastating one-way strategic attack missions directly on the U.S. a national security concern. On 12 August 1952, the Secretary of Defense, Robert A. Lovett, presented the request to President Truman. (71)

Map 6. B-47 Reconnaissance Flight over the Siberian Peninsula Data Source: Cargile Hall, “Strategic Reconnaissance in the Cold War: From Concept to National Policy,” Prologue, Volume 28, No. 2, Summer 1996, 115. Technical data overlayed on Rand McNally Atlas of the World Map, Page 132 North American Environments by web site editor.

President Truman approved the overflight, which was conducted by a camera-modified B-47B bomber aircraft on October 1952. The USAF used a modified B-47 because the reconnaissance variant (RB-47) had not yet entered the inventory and this mission required this aircraft’s speed. The subsequent flight, called Project 52, was flown from Eilson AFB, Alaska. After air-refueling, the primary B-47 crew flew the 3,500 mile mission entering Soviet airspace between the Siberian cities of Stanovaya and Amberchik and flying over 1,000 miles of Soviet territory before exiting from the Chutotskiy Peninsula.

During the same period aerial reconnaissance was searching for Soviet bombers, the CIA was collecting reports from repatriated German scientists of increased Soviet nuclear weapons and missile development activity at locations deep within the USSR. Since the CIA did not have the HUMINT resources and USAF did not have the aerial reconnaissance assets that could reach these locations, the U.S. again turned to the UK for help. (72)

British Prime Minister Churchill suggested the U.S. and UK work together to acquire the needed intelligence with another overflight of Western USSR. For this mission, called Project ROBIN, the USAF fitted a 100 inch focal length camera into a specially-configured RAF B-2 Canberra bomber aircraft. After a few test flights over Eastern Europe to check for Soviet reactions, the mission was flown in August 1953. Entering Soviet air space, the aerial reconnaissance aircraft flew across the USSR to Kapuatin Yar, photographed other targets along the way and recovered in Iran. Though damaged when Soviet jets intercepted and shot at it over Kapustin Yar, these types of overflights were deemed even more necessary after the Soviets tested their first thermonuclear device on 13 August 1953.


(68) Hall, Prologue, 113.
(69) Lashmar, 65-66.
(70) Big Safari History of the Greenville Division, n.p. n.d., 4-5
(71) SecDef Memorandum, Subject: Reconnaissance Requirements, 12 August 1952, National Archives.
(72) Jackson, 67.

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