Early Cold War Air Intelligence

For a decade after the end of World War II, the issue of Soviet strengths and intentions had been the top item on every Western political agenda, but the available information came almost exclusively from a combination of refugee interviews and oblique photography taken by aircraft flying along the Soviet periphery. While these flights eventually demonstrated that there had not been any threatening buildup of airstrips in locations that would bring the United States within range of a surprise first strike, there remained a significant problem that could only be overcome by flying directly over potential targets deep inside the Soviet Union. At the time, the nuclear deterrent consisted of free-fall atomic weapons that were to be dropped by U.S. Strategic Air Command and British Bomber Command aircraft. However, the effectiveness of the deterrent was entirely dependent on the weapons being delivered to their targets accurately, and the bombardiers’ aiming systems required radar ground-mapping of every site. This procedure demanded advance reconnaissance of each target, which in turn necessitated a vertical radar survey that could only be undertaken by long incursions into hostile air space. Thus, during the Cold War there were a variety of reasons for the many reconnaissance flights flown into Eastern Bloc airspace. There was the need to locate Warsaw Pact radar stations and air defense systems, then a requirement to map the Soviet Union and survey potential targets, and finally the long-term commitment to monitoring hostile communications channels as an early-warning precaution against a surprise first strike.

During the uneasy postwar period, American and British aircraft routinely penetrated the Soviet Bloc, and Red Air Force Tupolev-95 Bears constantly tested the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s air defenses. These risky provocations continued throughout the Cold War and between 1950 and 1970, 252 American aircrew were shot down by Soviet fighters. But as reliance on technical intelligence sources grew, and on signals in particular, the use of airborne platforms to intercept telemetry and other communications increased, especially in those parts of the world where safe land sites were unavailable. Although the National Security Agency established eavesdropping facilities in friendly countries such as Turkey, Japan, and Germany and developed relationships with the British and Norwegians, the U.S. Air Force was often required to fill the gaps when, for instance, the sites at Kagnew, Eritrea, and the three in Iran had to be evacuated because of changes in the local regime. In the absence of convenient ground sites in strategic locations, aircraft were deployed to intercept the target traffic.

The issue of Soviet strategic bombers and missiles was equally crucial, and until the U-2 began regular overflights of Red Air Force bases, the science of judging the Kremlin’s military capability became almost as arcane as the art of predicting the Politburo’s decisions. Soviet secrecy and the repressive nature of the regime effectively prevented use of the “Mark I Eyeball” to study production figures, accumulate published statistics, monitor factory output, watch airbases, or photograph naval installations. Indeed, in the absence of even Soviet roadmaps, the postwar intelligence analysts were obliged to rely on ancient prerevolutionary maps of Russia and aerial photographs taken by the Luftwaffe. Yet the need to find the submarines, aircraft, nuclear facilities, railway lines, test sites and training areas became increasingly important, and it was not until the U-2 imagery became available that analysts could grasp the scale of Nikita Khrushchev’s breathtakingly ambitious bluff, which culminated in the Cuban missile crisis. In November 1959, he had boasted that a single factory had produced 250 hydrogen warheads over the previous 12 months. It had seemed incredible that any responsible leader would blatantly lie about such an important issue yet the frequent claim that a “missile gap” had left the United States vulnerable to a more powerful potential enemy had a significant influence on American domestic politics, especially during the presidential campaign won by John F. Kennedy.

The mystery of the Kremlin’s true strength would eventually be solved by the U-2 and then by the deployment of satellites, but Khrushchev’s ingenious remedy to the relative weakness of his atomic arsenal was simply to move his short-range weapons closer to their target, and the result was the Cuban missile crisis, the catalyst for which was the discovery by U.S. air intelligence of his scheme. Although the resulting naval blockade of Cuba was enforced by warships, the whole confrontation was essentially about aircraft, with Soviet missiles detected by American aircraft. Indeed, the only fatality of the entire incident was a U.S. Air Force pilot, Major Rudolph Anderson, whose U-2 spy plane was shot down by a Soviet SA-2.


Many of the other conflicts fought during the Cold War, often proxy battles in which the adversaries were equipped by the superpowers, served to update intelligence analysts on the relative potency of air power. Following the invasion of South Korea, Soviet aircraft and pilots skillfully outmaneuvered and outgunned their U.S. counterparts until new equipment and tactics could be deployed in the skies over the peninsula. Initially, the MiG-15, powered with a reverse-engineered Rolls-Royce jet engine, proved invincible, at least until the F-86 Sabre evened the balance. This was to be the last time American fighter jocks would ever engage the Soviets in sustained aerial dogfights, leaving future confrontations to surrogates, apart from some suspected incidents over North Vietnam. In that war, overwhelming and permanent air superiority proved no substitute for political support at home and Vietnamese tactics in an environment that favored the insurgents and limited the effectiveness of comprehensive air cover.

Most future tests of relative equipment, personnel, and avionics would occur in simulated environments over secret airbases in the western United States or in real conditions, with Israelis pitted against Syrian, Egyptian, Jordanian, and Iraqi aircrews. For decades, the Middle East provided a highly realistic scenario for American manufacturers to bench test new jets and electronic countermeasures against Eastern Bloc interceptors and ground defenses. Captured Warsaw Pact military equipment, ranging from an entire Egyptian radar station to a defecting Iraqi MiG Fishbed, ended up in American laboratories, so all their most secret components could be examined and the appropriate countermeasures devised. While politicians picked over the consequences of 1967’s Six Day War and the participants on both sides reexamined the strategic lessons, the air intelligence analysts were assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing forces, confident that the outcome of the next clash again would be decided in the air.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.