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

Chapter 5
Page 4 of 5 Pages

Beyond the U-2
Sacrifice and a Final Evaluation

A Valuable Catch:

A case not listed as one of the Commission’s ten priority Cold War shootdowns is the loss of the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron (SRS) RB-45 over the North Korean/Manchurian border on 4 December 1950. In the circumstances surrounding this case, the U.S. Government seems as intent on sealing the record as the Russians. This may stem from the fact that a high-ranking intelligence officer, Colonel John Lovell, was on this reconnaissance aircraft as a passenger when it was shot down. (138)

Colonel Lovell was assigned to the Pentagon and worked for Major General Charles P. Cabell, the USAF Chief of Intelligence. (139) As the highest ranking intelligence officer lost during the entire war, Col Lovell would have been a prime “catch” in the Soviet attempt to learn all they could about the ongoing U.S. aerial reconnaissance effort. In recent years, the Russians have admitted that they conducted a special program to acquire certain equipment and men during the Korean War. High priority items included F-86 aircraft, fighter pilots and reconnaissance crews.

Why a high-ranking intelligence officer with significant background and experience in intelligence operations would be riding along on a reconnaissance mission over enemy territory is not clear. It’s suspected that he was evaluating a recent SAC query about the suitability of the RB-45 for Russian overflight missions. While over the Yalu conducting its mission, the RB-45 was engaged by several MiG-15s and shot down. The Air Force sent notices to the crew’s family members the next day stating, “All possible search completed.” After the armistice was signed and UN prisoners were repatriated, the Air Force closed out the case, giving Colonel Lovell and the three RB-45 crewmen a presumptive finding of death.

Over 40 years later, during the Joint Commission’s work, U.S. and Russian archival information started coming to light and former Soviet participants began coming forward with information. One source of information on these cases has been the lists provided by the Soviets of U.S. POWs they interrogated during the Korean War. Another is the former Soviet military and KGB officials who came forward to tell what they knew. Former Soviet Air Force Colonel Pavel Frionov is one of these individuals. He testified that in December 1950 he interrogated Colonel Lovell. He stated this interrogation was unique because he was impressed by the wealth of intelligence information this Air Force Colonel had on his person about the USSR, its military and its leadership.

In May 1951, a U.S. intelligence analyst monitoring a Chinese Communist broadcast in the Far East heard Colonel Lovell’s name mentioned during the reading of a list of UN POWs, (140) Although the U.S. presented these pieces of information to the Russian side of the Joint Commission, answers were not forthcoming. The U.S. side has not helped in failing to even identify the mission Colonel Lovell was on during this reconnaissance flight. In the end, the official statement f rom the U.S./Russian Commission report concludes, “Although the U.S. side of the Commission firmly believes there is a high probability that [Col. Lovell’s name blanked out here] died in the crash of the RB-45 and was not captured, the Commission will continue to seek additional information that will clear up any ambiguity surrounding this case.” (141)

Current Status of the U.S./Russia Joint Commission:

Since its inception in 1992, the U.S./Russian Commission on POW/MIA affairs has conducted over a dozen high-level plenary sessions in Washington DC and Moscow, with additional scores of working-group technical visits and talks. The Joint Commission has also met with high-ranking officials and made appeals to former Soviet citizens for information in visits to thirteen former Soviet states – now independent nations. The U.S. side of the Commission has also received over 12,000 pages of former Soviet documents (many classified) and conducted hundreds of interviews. (142) The Commission’s work has been focused on three primary directives:

1. Determine if any American POW/MIAs are still held in the former Soviet Union against their will.

2. Determine the fate of unaccounted-for members of the U.S. Armed Forces who were located on territory of the Soviet Union or about whom the Russian government may have information.

3. Clarify facts pertaining to Soviet personnel missing from the war in Afghanistan and the Cold War-era loss incidents.

In this, the Commission has experienced limited success. To the first objective, the Russian government has officially stated, “No U.S. citizens are currently being detained within the territory of the former USSR.” On the second, the Commission has declared uneven results. The remains of one USAF reconnaissance crew member was found and recovered but the U.S. side still cannot get access to archives it believes crucial to learning the fates of hundreds of others. The Commission has attained a fuller understanding of incidents in the resolution of the third objective, but has met with little success to the point of officially closing the Cold War reconnaissance loss cases.

In the final analysis of the Cold War aerial reconnaissance cases being investigated, over 150 men are still unaccounted for. Until such time as the Russians are willing to share all of their archival information (if detailed records exist), the fates of these Cold Warriors will remain unknown. The price they paid with their service and sacrifice is embodied in the vital intelligence they provided to keep the nation prepared and ready for a Cold War in which the world was at stake.

Value to National Leaders, Intelligence Community, and Military

The intrinsic value of the intelligence aerial reconnaissance provided to the nation, and the impact it had on national security from 1947 through 1962, fall into several categories and components. Aerial reconnaissance was a weapon wielded by the nation like a double-edged sword with both offensive and defensive sides. Swung in one direction, the blade of aerial reconnaissance cut through Soviet defenses to help military war-planners get the intelligence they needed to ensure the U.S. military was prepared to strike as an offensive weapon. Parried to the other side, it acted as the nation’s primary means of gauging the Communist threat and the level of Soviet preparedness to attack the U.S. or its national interests around the world.

Early War Planning:

In the immediate years following WW II, as U.S./USSR tensions began to mount, the most pressing need for aerial reconnaissance was in helping prepare the U.S. military to project force around the globe. As the only nation with atomic weapons, and the nation with the largest strategic air force, war-planning centered on using these two weapons as the premier means of offense and as a tool to deter aggression. As the Air Force learned during WW II, strategic air bombardment required a great deal of reconnaissance. Not only was it necessary to know “what” to hit, bit it was even more essential to know “where” the target was located. Also of prime concern to bomber crews was the strength of Soviet defenses in and around strategic targets. By flying systematic and continual reconnaissance missions, war-planners were able to develop an Electronic Order of Battle necessary to meet and overcome Soviet defenses.

Early Cold War aerial reconnaissance provided the nation’s strike forces, primarily the USAF’s Strategic Air Command and USN’s Carrier Battle Groups, the intelligence they required to prepare target folders which would enable crews to complete their missions if called upon. As Communism spread out from the Soviet Union and into Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Far East, additional targeting requirements were added should the U.S. find itself having to fight in those regions as well. Military planners and leaders understood that strategic aerial reconnaissance was “the” key to successful strategic air attack. Without it, our forces would be hard-pressed to defend themselves, find their way to their assigned target areas or identify and destroy specific targets.

A necessary requirement in war planning for all types of forces (air, ground and sea) is maps and charts. By the end of WW II, only about 5 percent of the earth’s total surface was mapped. One of the initial benefits of aerial reconnaissance was its ability to photograph and chart large expanses. This not only better prepared the U.S. military for contingencies anywhere in the world, it would eventually lead to peacetime applications as well. One of the prime areas of interest for airmen (both American and Soviet) was the Arctic. Needing to find the quickest routes to each other’s homeland led both nations to gain expertise in the navigation and use of polar routes.

The work of the 46th/72nd Reconnaissance Squadron in Alaska and Arctic regions surpassed all early military expectations. It validated the use of polar routes for strategic planning and the adequacy of existing platforms to operate in that environment. By probing Soviet defenses, war planners were able to create plans which would ensure the survivability of the nation in a U.S./USSR conflict. The unit’s work aided not only military war-planners but would lay the foundation for all later commercial navigation in the northern reaches of the hemisphere.

Regional Conflicts and Global Support:

Aerial reconnaissance played a crucial role in the success of UN forces in liberating South Korea and maintaining its freedom. While some may criticize its inability to predict the initial invasion or subsequent involvement of Chinese Communists, it must be understood that aerial reconnaissance prior to the Korean War was not organized, trained or equipped to conduct either ground surveillance or indications and warning. Reconnaissance missions flown by the 91 SRS photographed scores of Soviet jet fighters lined up on runways in Manchuria before the counterattack by Chinese Communists, but the UN Command failed to correlate this information with other sources to develop a better operational picture.

The 91 SRS played such a vital role during the Korean War that it received the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, Distinguished Unit Citation and the Korean Presidential Unit Citation. (143) As the Commander of the Far East Air Force remarked after the end of the war, “Aerial reconnaissance proved to be of greater value than in any previous conflict and was, by far, the most valuable means of collecting intelligence on enemy activities.” (144)

This was quite a turn around in three years. In fact, aerial reconnaissance assets were so scarce in the late 1940’s that it was actually the Korean War that precipitated their growth into a global asset. As such, aerial reconnaissance’s role in monitoring Soviet and other Communist forces around the world allowed the Commander-in Chief and his military leaders to know how much force to allot to each theater while the Korean War was being waged. In addition to force monitoring, it was aerial reconnaissance which provided the nation with the first indications that the Soviets had tested their first atomic device. The Soviet acquisition of atomic weapons, combined with their effort to build a strategic air force, forced a new role on aerial reconnaissance – the search for Soviet offensive weapons which could strike the United States.

The Bomber Gap:

The potential for surprise attack on the U.S. was a memory still fresh in the minds of Americans in the early Cold War. Armed with atomic weapons and equipped with long-range bombers, the USSR was the only nation capable of inflicting this type of damage on the United States. Beginning in the late 1940’s and continuing on into the early 1960’s, aerial reconnaissance was the best means to gauge Soviet preparedness and capabilities in this regard. In the USSR’s closed society, with scarce human intelligence (HUMINT) sources, the best way for the U.S. to measure Soviet capabilities, preparations and strengths was through aerial reconnaissance.

Soviet Premier Stalin ordered the development of a strategic bomber force as the USSR’s second priority after acquiring the atomic bomb. As such, Soviet efforts to develop and deploy a series of long-range bombers began right after WW II and continued until the Soviet military made a doctrinal shift from bombers to missiles for their primary nuclear strike force in the late 1950’s. Most disturbing to U.S. leaders was that the combination of these two weapons placed the U.S. under threat of a direct, short-notice devastating attack. The distance and oceans that long protected the U.S. would no longer be an obstacle to a long-range Soviet atomic bomber force.

Though the first Soviet-produced Tu-4 BULL bomber did not contribute much of a threat due to its limited range and lack of air-to-air refueling capability, the Soviets could reach most of the U.S. with one-way missions from Soviet bases in the Far East and Siberia. As bomber development led to more advanced aircraft, sudden revelations of airframes and numbers startled U.S. observers and intelligence analysts (see Appendix G for Soviet Bombers). As a result of what appeared to be a growing gap between the number of U.S. and Soviet bombers being made between 1954 and 1955, the U.S. congress authorized an additional $300 million for U.S. B-52 production.

The problem of acquiring hard intelligence on Soviet bomber (and later, missile) development, production and deployment became more difficult as Soviet air defense systems and aircraft improved. It would not be until the initiation of U-2 missions over the USSR in 1956 that the perceived “Bomber Gap” would be disproved. The first series of U-2 missions did not find the numbers of bombers intelligence analysts had estimated. Thus, between 1957 and 1958 the estimated Soviet bomber strength gradually decreased from 800 down to 100-200 long-range aircraft.


(138) Colonel Lovell was a West Point graduate who worked as the assistant air attaché in Berlin in 1939. During WW II, he was engaged in intelligence operations and afterwards served as military attaché in Romania. Convicted of espionage in Bucharest and given a death sentence, he was declared persona non grata and expelled from Romania in 1949. After returning to the U.S., he joined the Air Force Intelligence staff.
(139) Comprehensive Report of the U.S. – Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs, Defense POW/MIA Office (DEMO), 17 June 1996, 70-71.
(140) Lawrence Golden, Last Seen Alive: The Search for Missing POWs during the Korean War (Wash DC: Ink-Slinger Press, 1995) 208.
(141) DPMO Report, 77.
(142) DPMO Report, 2-4.
(143) Bailey, 59.
(144) “FEAF Reconnaissance in the Korea Conflict,” Far East Air Force Report on Korea, June 1950-July 1953, USAF Historical Research Center Archives.

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