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 4 of 6 Pages

Answering the Call

Worldwide Missions:

Aerial reconnaissance periphery and overflight missions were carried out all across the breadth of the USSR, PRC, and Soviet Block countries during these early years. Though too many to fully describe in this paper, some special missions and projects are illustrated briefly below to give a feel for the scope of the worldwide aerial reconnaissance effort. 1951 – 1952:

  • RB-36’s conducted overflights of Soviet Arctic bases flying from Sculthorpe, England starting in 1951. By late 1952, RB-36 reconnaissance aircraft began deploying to the 91 ARS to conduct high-altitude aerial reconnaissance against Manchurian targets.

  • 18 January 1953: USN VP-22 (Neptune) conducted a maritime reconnaissance mission off of PRC’s Swoton Island in the Formosa Straits.

  • July 1953 – April 1954: RB-57 conducted SIGINT and PHOTINT missions in Far East over USSR and PRC. (73)

  • 29 July 1953: RB-50G conducted SIGINT mission in the Vladivostok area.

  • 28 April 1953: Three RAF RB-45’s conducted simultaneous overflight missions of Western USSR photographing Soviet LRA bases and identifying air defenses. (74)

  • 8 May 1953: RB-47E overflight of USSR’s Kola Peninsula conducts PHOTINT in search of Soviet bombers and advanced jet fighters.

  • 4 – 7 September 1954: Navy P2V Neptune conducted SIGINT mission off the Kamchatka Peninsula and RB-29 conducted SIGINT mission over Sea of Japan near Hokkaido Island.

  • April 1954 – February 1955: RF-86 photo reconnaissance jets conducted shallow overflights of USSR, Manchurian and PRC airfields.

  • 17 April 1955: RB-47E (PHOTINT) mission off Kamchatka Peninsula.

  • 30 March – 7 May 1955: Four RB-47E (PHOTINT) and four RB-47 (ELINT) reconnaissance aircraft flew PARPRO missions along Siberian northern and eastern shores, identifying Soviet air and air defense forces.

  • May 1955: U.S. RB-45’s conduct overflights of Western USSR collecting radar scope photography of Soviet military installations for target folders.

  • 21 March – 10 May 1956: SAC conducted Project HOMERUN. Sixteen RB-47E’s, five RB-47H’s, and 28 KC-97 refueling tankers conducted massive daily PHOTINT/ELINT effort from Thule AB, Greenland against Northern USSR coastal and island areas. On 6 May, six RB-47E’s made mass overflight in formation abreast, collecting ELINT data across a swath of the Northern USSR.

  • 22 August 1956: Navy PFM (Mercator) from VQ-1 in Iwakuni, Japan conducted SIGINT mission off PRC coast.

  • October 1956 – September 1957: RB-57D’s monitored radiation samples and conducted SIGINT reconnaissance against Soviet Naval and Air Forces in Far East under Operation SEALION.

  • 11 December 1956: Three RB-57’s conducted simultaneous PHOTINT overflight of three different targets in Vladivostok.

As can be seen from the wide range of missions flown by many different types of aircraft all over the world from 1950 through 1956, the role of aerial reconnaissance greatly expanded to answer a whole host of important intelligence questions and national security concerns. From regional combat support, through preparations for global conflict, to filling critical intelligence gaps, aerial reconnaissance was the premier source of national intelligence during the early years of the Cold War. The Soviets and their Communist allies were not, however, mearly allowing all of these aircraft to fly over their territory with impunity.

Playing with Fire: Soviet/Communist Reactions

The number and frequency of U.S. aerial reconnaissance flights briefly outlined above in not indicative of a lack of Soviet concern about these U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts. It was more a product of the USSR’s overwhelming preoccupation with rebuilding from the devastation and destruction of WW II and trying to contend with securing the tremendous Soviet landmass.

The USSR’s historical perceptions of its own insecurity were heightened by a number of factors after WW II. First and foremost, Soviet leadership wanted to ensure that postwar actions resulted in a weak and dismembered Germany and the creation of a buffer zone between itself and potential adversaries. The USSR saw the U.S. and UK allying themselves and felt these allies were rebuilding and rearming Germany (and Japan) too quickly. Some other signs that the Soviet leadership perceived as threatening were:

  • The U.S. effort to build a bridge of air bases around the world to project its power and defend itself was interpreted by the Soviets as an effort to “encircle” the USSR with over 170 bases from which to strike.

  • The U.S. continued development and testing of new and more powerful atomic weapons while calling for international controls over other nation’s development — thus keeping raw materials secured for its own use and ensuring a continued U.S. monopoly on atomic weapons.

  • The development of longer–range strategic bombers from which atomic weapons could be delivered.

  • The end of loans and aid to the USSR and Eastern European governments while deferring reparation payments of U.S. allies and historic opponents of the Soviet regime.

  • Continued assistance to partisan and guerrilla groups still fighting the USSR and Soviet–backed forces located in various occupied territories and within the Soviet Union’s borders. (75)

As well as providing trucks and aircraft during WW II, the 10 billion U.S. Lend Lease program provided the USSR with air defense and radar systems. In addition to the U.S. provided radar sets, the USSR augmented its initial air defense systems with captured German, Japanese and Allied equipment. Initially, the existing systems could only cover small strategic areas around major cities and industry. But this was steadily increased as the Soviets developed their own radar and air defense systems.

In the early years of the Cold War, the USSR did not have the resources and expertise needed to patrol and guard all along the border regions of its 8.6 million square mile republic. (76) Huge gaps existed in which aircraft could (and did) easily enter into Soviet airspace undetected. Not only were radar sets and aircraft limited for distribution to every area of this vast land but most of the Soviet inventory was built on WW II technology. At the end of WW II, the B-29 was the world’s premier long-range strategic bomber. The USSR would not even have a jet fighter which could catch the B-29 until 1948.


(73) The RB-57 was the reconnaissance model of the RAF Canberra produced under license in the U.S. and used predominately for high-altitude reconnaissance missions.
(74) Repeating the same basic RB-45 overflight routes taken in 1952 with U.S. supplied and UK piloted aircraft.
(75) Leffler, 135.
(76) Harry F. Young, Atlas of the Soviet Union (Wash DC: U.S. Department of State, 1987), 2.

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