The story of
The Impact of U.S. Aerial
during the Early Cold War
Service & Sacrifice of the
Cold Warriors

Chapter 2
Page 1 of 5 Pages

The Need to Know
Cold War Aerial Reconnaissance Begins

“Air power is not only our first line of defense, it is the only instrument using the third dimensional medium, the air; it is the only weapon that has the speed, flexibility and versatility to cope with the cataclysmic forces yet to be released in the Atomic Age.” (10)

U.S. Army Air Force General Carl A. Spaatz
Address to the Business Advisory Council,
Hot Springs, Virginia, 27 October 1945

The Planners and Controllers

Given the developing U.S./USSR confrontation after World War II, key civilian and military leaders would become architects of the intelligence-gathering method of “aerial reconnaissance.” Many of these same leaders would eventually also plan and control early Cold War aerial reconnaissance. Before discussing the war-planning plans and programs which drove intelligence requirements and the need for aerial reconnaissance missions against the USSR, it is necessary to understand a few key terms, ideals and concepts which support all the methods and means of aerial reconnaissance. The first of which were derived directly from World War II–strategic bombardment and air power. (11)

Strategic Air Power:

During the war against Germany and Japan, the U.S. Army Air Force (AAF) strategic bombing played a great role in the defeat of both nations. Without entering the debate about how large a role strategic bombardment played–or if it was the determining factor–in both theaters, civilian and military leaders of the period thought it important enough that the USAAF was soon transformed into an independent branch of the armed forces–the U. S. Air Force (USAF).

Not only did strategic bombing play a role in delivering the most devastating and deadly blows of the war but it proved to be the most effective way to reach deep within the enemy’s territory to disable and/or destroy key elements of national power. In some cases, like General Doolittle’s raid against Tokyo, it could also send a psychological message to the enemy. During one of the war’s later bombing missions against Tokyo on 10 March 1945, over 16 square miles of the city were destroyed and 80,000 people killed. (12) After World War II, military planners carefully evaluated the lessons and power of strategic bombardment and developed this power in planning for future applications.

Other than strategic bombing, controlling the air and aerial reconnaissance were two additional components of air warfare that proved themselves essential. Not only were these components necessary to further air power, but were essential for successful ground and naval actions as well. The success of the D-Day Invasion can be directly attributed to the complete air control over Normandy. As World War II proved, naval battles and campaigns in the Pacific became centered around aircraft carriers and their inherent air power. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines all depended on air superiority to ensure successful operations.

Part of gaining control of the air during World War II became the ability to defend against and defeat a new military instrument–radar. As the Germans and Japanese began the development and use of radar, the AAF had to develop methods to detect, measure, identify, and overcome enemy systems. This new type of intelligence gathering was called electronic Intelligence (ELINT) and was grouped into a new mission called Electronic Warfare (EW).

As scope and volume of the strategic bombing of Germany and Japan increased, ELINT and EW began to play as big a role for U.S. and Allied air forces as did its predecessor–Communications Intelligence (COMINT). (13) The Allied intercept and use of German ULTRA and Japanese MAGIC communications gave allied commanders a huge advantage. With the addition of ELINT, both disciplines were combined under the term Signals Intelligence (SIGINT). SIGINT would become the mainstay of intelligence collection in the ensuing Cold War.

Confronted with the closed society of the USSR, a decrease in military forces, few strong allies, and less budgetary resources, U.S. leaders had to revise these methods of collecting intelligence to gain the information needed about the Soviet Union. For all the reasons previously mentioned, combined with the need for war-planning information, national leaders turned to aerial reconnaissance to help fill existing intelligence gaps.

Early Leaders:

The people who would control, plan and use this relatively new type of intelligence had all used and learned from it during World War II. They would be the leaders who would apply those concepts and ideals to the intelligence problems facing the U.S. in the beginning of the Cold War. Some of these leaders were General of the Air Force Henry A. “Hap” Arnold, General Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz, general Curtis LeMay, and General of the Army (and later, U. S. President) Dwight D. Eisenhower. They would serve as the initial planners and controllers who would use Cold War aerial reconnaissance to its fullest potential.

A closer look at these top leaders gives a sense of their background and how it would come into play during the opening stages of the Cold War. General Arnold was one of the Air Force’s forefathers. As one of the first military pilots trained by the Wright Brothers, he commanded all American air units during World War I. During World War II, he eventually rose in rank to command of the entire U.S. Army Air Force and later laid the groundwork for establishing the Air Force as an independent service. He was promoted to the 5-star rank of General of the Air Force on 21 December 1944–the highest ranking airman in the nation’s history.

General Spaatz commanded USAAF units at every level of command and in every theater of World War II. He was in charge of USAAF units in the Pacific when the atomic bombs were dropped to force Japan’s surrender and bring the world conflict to an end. He succeeded General Arnold as the AAF Commanding General and would be the first Air Force Chief of Staff when it became a separate service in the National Security Act of 1947.

A career airman, General LeMay distinguished himself in many air feats between the wars. During World War II, he commanded the “Mighty” 8th Air Force during the strategic bombing in Europe and was the architect of the strategic bombing campaign against Japan. After World War II, General LeMay commanded the U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) during the time of the Berlin Airlift and was selected to command Strategic Air Command (SAC) in October 1948. After building SAC into the most formidable strategic air force in the world (and after over nine years as SAC Commander). President Eisenhower selected him to become the Air Force Chief of Staff.

As Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General of the Army Eisenhower understood the necessity of strategic air power and had an in-depth knowledge and appreciation for ULTRA, aerial reconnaissance, and other intelligence. As U.S. President, he used his extensive military and intelligence background to authorize and use aerial reconnaissance assets to provide intelligence that could not be gathered any other way.


(10) Carl Spaatz, “Spaatz Papers” National Archives, (Wash. D.C.: Library of Congress), Box 268.
(11) Carl Spaatz, “Cable, Air Force Chief of Staff to Commanding General, USAFE, 24 July 1947” National Archives (Wash. D.C.: Library of Congress), Box 389(12) Lashmar, 35.
(13) Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz rated the value of COMINT in the Pacific during World War II as equivalent to having another whole fleet. James Bamford, The Puzzle Palace (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1982), 46.

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