The Impact of U.S. Aerial Reconnaissance
during the Early Cold War (1947-1962):
Service & Sacrifice of the Cold Warriors
Page 5 of 5 Pages
Beyond the U-2
The Missile Gap:
Much like the Bomber Gap which developed during the mid-1950’s, a “Missile Gap” developed between 1957 and 1960 from a combination of factors, including: inadequate HUMINT sources inside the Soviet Union, inability of U.S. aerial reconnaissance to reach areas deep within the USSR and a successful Soviet propaganda campaign. Well-publicized Soviet achievements in space and missile development led Western leaders to believe the USSR was much stronger than it really was. Unlike the Soviet bomber threat, there was no good defense against missile attack. And unlike the German V-1 rockets fired at London, Soviet atomic missiles required even less accuracy to be devastating. The American public likened the Soviets’ newly acquired power to being able to unleash a “Space Age Pearl Harbor.”
President Eisenhower’s approval of development and use of the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft gave the U.S. its first sustainable ability to look deep inside the Soviet Union. Armed with this aerial reconnaissance vehicle, intelligence analysts could more accurately measure the USSR’s true strengths and weaknesses. National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) before the U-2 forecast the USSR would have 500 ICBMs by the end of 1960. As a result of the intelligence provided through the U-2, combined with other sources, NIEs produced in 1960 projected Soviet ICBM strength to be approximately 200 by mid-1963. (145)
In filling this vital national security role, aerial reconnaissance relieved the Eisenhower administration from the crisis atmosphere that permeated thinking and planning. Prior to the U-2 collection, analysts predicted that a Soviet surprise nuclear attack could destroy 85% of SAC’s bomber force. (146) Armed with evidence that the Soviets did not have a large arsenal of missiles and bombers, President Eisenhower was able to explore propositions to try to slow down nuclear weapon and ballistic missile development.
Indications and Warning:
Aerial reconnaissance throughout the early Cold War years provided the nation with its first Indications and Warning (I&W) tool. While this tool was not highly refined from the late 1940’s through early 1950’s, by the 1960’s aerial reconnaissance had become the premier tool used to warn U.S. decision-makers of national security threats. The USAF conducted many of the earliest RB-47 overflight missions to verify the staging of Soviet long-range bombers and photograph indications of Soviet military buildups. Some flights were requested by the commanders of the various theaters, such as the 20 July 1951 request by the Commander of the Far East Forces “in order to confirm the existence of a reported missile launching site and determine other factors which might reveal USSR intentions.” (147)
The U-2 and other aerial reconnaissance assets were also able to provide data to the intelligence community which enabled it to redirect and refocus other types of collection like HUMINT and ground-based SIGINT. The U-2 provided I&W in its overflights of the Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China, and later Cuba. Without the Cuban overflights, and their first indications of a military buildup and then theater nuclear missiles, President Kennedy may not have discovered the medium-and nuclear missiles poised on Cuba ready to knock out 80% of the U.S. strategic forces, the situation may have played out much differently.
National Security Policy:
As noted throughout this paper, aerial reconnaissance had an impact on the way Presidents formulated and Executed their national security policy. This is evident in the way aerial reconnaissance intelligence was used to dismiss bomber and missile gaps by President Eisenhower. Although the Soviet Union rejected OPEN SKIES and did all it could to shoot down U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, aerial reconnaissance still played a vital role in allowing the President to modify U.S. national policy in response to real versus perceived threats to national security and interests.
When Eisenhower became President, he used the intelligence system (and aerial reconnaissance) to establish the inherent weakness of the Soviet and Chinese Communist positions. This allowed him to be more direct and forceful in the administration’s negotiations to bring the Korean conflict to an end. When President Kennedy was faced with the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was able to face down Soviet aggressive actions because he knew the exact strategic strength of the Soviet Union.
Aerial reconnaissance played a key role in other events not covered in this paper, like the U.S. intervention in Lebanon and the conflict between Taiwan and the PRC in 1958. In both of these actions, President Eisenhower used aerial reconnaissance to simultaneously determine the strengths of the aggressors, as well as monitor the USSR’s military posture. He was able to modify U.S. policy and apply the right amount of U.S. military force in each case to reach the desired outcome.
The Economics and Costs of Aerial Reconnaissance:
As noted above, in regards to dismissing the Bomber and Missile Gaps, aerial reconnaissance’s economic value was key to keeping what President Eisenhower termed the “military-industrial complex” under control. By having the necessary intelligence to prove that the U.S. was not falling behind the Soviets, the Eisenhower administration was able to take steps reducing tension between the U.S. and USSR. The $35 million initial cost of developing the U-2 program paid for itself a hundred times over in savings realized by not producing hundreds more bombers and missiles. (148)
While aerial reconnaissance saved dollars on the weapons production lines, it did cost the nation men and machines. As in other armed U.S. military actions and endeavors, aerial reconnaissance effort cost the lives of hundreds of men and scores of aircraft. While some may think this a small price to pay spread over 40 years of conflict, it still amounts to a huge loss to each and every one of the surviving family members. This may be one of the reasons why President Eisenhower was so adamant about not giving the CIA and DoD free rein to fly as many overflight missions as they wanted. Not only did he not want to cause great international tensions, but he was also a former military commander who did not put American lives in harm’s way unless absolutely essential for national security. In fact, my research has revealed a correlation between the pursuit of U-2 overflights and the loss of peripheral missions. In looking at the dates U-2 overflights were authorized, one can see each period soon followed by the shootdown of a peripheral flight soon thereafter.
The Final Analysis:
In the final analysis, the price paid by these courageous, silent Cold Warriors, while at times steep, guaranteed the safety and security of our nation in periods of great crisis, heightened anxiety, and open conflict. Without the vital information provided by thousands of aerial reconnaissance missions during the early Cold War years, it is not an exaggeration to say that this nation may not have survived. Our lack of knowledge about Soviet capabilities may have forced the U.S. to act out of uncertainty, with potentially global consequences. No one knows what the total cost of global nuclear war could have been.
The service and sacrifice of Cold War aerial reconnaissance crews, far from being squandered, provided a secure base from which the nation built a successful intelligence system. This system remained vigilant for over 40 years and helped the U.S. to eventually prevail in the global Cold War struggle. As Churchill said in describing British airmen during the Battle of Britain, “Never in the field of human conflict has so much owed by so many to so few.” (149)
Cold War POW-MIA, RB-29, SN: 44-61810, 12 June 1952
Sea of Japan, 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron
“Alone, Unarmed, and Unafraid.”
L to R, Front Row: Navigator, 1st Lt. Robert J. McDonnell Right. Scanner, S/Sgt. Roscoe G. Becker Tail Gunner, S/Sgt. Eddie R. Berg Left. Scanner, Leon F. Bonura, Flight. Engineer Master Sgt. William R. Homer
L to R, Back Row: Radar Operator, *Capt. Samuel D. Service Pilot, 1st. Lt. James A. Sculley Aircraft Commander, Major Samuel N. Busch Radio Operator, S/Sgt. William A. Blizzard Central Fire Control Gunner, S/Sgt. Miguel W. Monserrat Camera Operator, A/1c Danny Pillsbury
T/Sgt. David L. Moore, not in photo, was included in the mission.
Editor’s Note: There are two stories located on this web site that discuss this shootdown, and its aftermath, in some detail. You may click on the following titles to access this information:
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(145) Lashmar, 182-185.
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