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 5 of 6 Pages

Answering the Call

Until then the Soviets intercepted whichever slower reconnaissance and intruding aircraft they could. While initial intercepts focused on identifying, shadowing and sometimes, warning aerial reconnaissance flights away from its borders, other CIA–sponsored insertion flights of C-47’s were shot down. For aerial reconnaissance the turning point was reached in 1950. As briefly outlined earlier, Soviet air defense fighters shot down the first U.S. reconnaissance flight on 8 April 1950. The circumstances surrounding this shootdown seem to indicate that the Soviets wanted to use this action to send a message to the U.S. and others.

A formal note of protest was delivered to the U.S. Secretary of State by the Soviet Ambassador in Washington DC on 11 April 1950. In the note, the USSR claimed to have shot down the reconnaissance aircraft after it had penetrated over 21 kilometers into Soviet territory. When Soviet air defense fighters intercepted it and signaled it to land, the USSR claimed the USN aircraft fired on the Soviet fighters who, in turn, were forced to return fire. After hitting the U.S reconnaissance aircraft, the Soviet pilots stated it flew out over the coast and disappeared. (77) A statement released by the U.S. Government refuted the Soviet claims and further clarified this was an unarmed USN aircraft which was flying over international waters in the Baltic on a routine training mission.

Subsequent U.S. analysis of the incident has found this was, in fact, a special electronic collection “ferret” aircraft which was flying a mission with the approval of the Navy theater commander. This study also concluded that this shootdown, the diplomatic note and the publicized declaration of the Soviet pilots were all signals which

marked a turning point in Soviet policy toward air encroachments around the Soviet perimeter. For the first time in the postwar period, the Soviets asserted the right to force foreign planes suspected of violating their territory, and, to shoot them down if they refused to land and attempted instead to return to international airspace. (78)

Soviet MiGs in the Korean War:

When Soviet Premier Stalin was assured by the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung that his forces could overrun the South Korean peninsula and the U.S. would not intervene, he did not realize that Soviet forces would soon be actively engaged in the Far East with U.S. forces. It was only after UN forces, under General of the Army MacArthur, recaptured the overrun South Korea and threatened to push the North Korean forces over the Yalu River and into Manchuria, that the Chinese Communists committed themselves to the fight. Premier Stalin was forced to commit Soviet forces to ensure the Communist forces were able to prevail on the ground.

In December 1950, the USSR provided the MiG-15 jet fighter aircraft and pilots which were to take a drastic toll on U.S. aerial reconnaissance aircraft over the next several years. Premier Stalin went to great lengths to cover up the Soviet role in this conflict. Soviet pilots were given Chinese air and command terminology and were told to speak only Chinese over the radios. The USSR went into such detail to cover-up its involvement that military commanders ordered Soviet pilots and advisors to dress in PRC uniforms to more easily blend in with the other Communist troops. (79)

The introduction of the MiG-15’s in the Far East made an immediate impact on all air operations including aerial reconnaissance missions. As noted earlier, one of the first casualties was a U.S. RB-45 which was flying a reconnaissance mission along the Yalu River on 4 December 1950. Soon RB-29 reconnaissance aircraft were feeling the pressure too. Combined with the Soviet-supplied and operated early warning (RUS-2), ground controlled intercept (GCI) and gun-laying radars (SON-2), the MiG-15 began to inhibit air operations.

By mid-1951, the FEAF prohibited RB-29’s from operating over North Korea without fighter escort and MiG-15 activity in Northwest Korea (soon nicknamed MiG Alley) restricted RB-29’s from conducting any missions in that area. By 1952, the danger was so great that the RB-29’s resorted to night operations. Continued intercepts and loss of U.S. reconnaissance flights after the Korean armistice was signed forced the USAF and USN to provide armed fighter escorts on many Far East reconnaissance missions.

The deployment of the RB-36’s to the 91st SRS in late 1952, is an example of the lengths to which the USAF (and SAC) thought it needed to go to collect critical intelligence in the Far East theater. Like Premier Stalin with his MiG-15’s, General LeMay was very careful with his assets. He did not commit his fleet of RB-47’s into the Far East theater late in the war due to the risk of having one shot down and the Soviets capturing the U.S. technology. (80) Ordering RB-36’s into the theater in late 1952 was acknowledgment that this was the only reconnaissance aircraft in the inventory immune from intercept. (81)


(77) Dick van der Aart, Aerial Espionage: Secret Intelligence Flights by East and West (London: Macmillan General, 1986). 52-53.
(78) Paul M. Cole, POW/MIA Issues Volume 2; World War II and the Early Cold War (Wash DC: Rand Corporation, 1994), 41-43.
(79) Lashmar, 49.
(80) It was commonly known that the Soviets had a list of aircraft and airmen whit it wanted to capture and use. One of the first U.S. F-86 Sabre jets to make a forced landing relatively intact was dismantled, crated and sent to the USSR for analysis and engineering.
(81) In fact, the Soviet Air Force would not produce a fighter capable of catching and intercepting the RB-36 until the 1958 timeframe.

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