Intelligence at Considerable Risk (1955 - 1960)
In the mid-1940s and early 1950s, before satellite reconnaissance was invented, the United States conducted high-risk aerial surveillance missions over the Soviet Union, Asia, and other “denied areas” using low-altitude planes modified for reconnaissance purposes. Each flight brought the possibility of a shoot down, loss of crew and plane, and political repercussions, even war. The first planes (designated “RB” for Reconnaissance Bomber) became increasingly vulnerable to enemy fighters and surface-to-air missiles. The United States continued these dangerous missions out of a critical need to gain accurate intelligence that could forewarn or stop a surprise attack on the nation. As time progressed, the Air Force and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) developed dedicated, faster, higher-flying reconnaissance planes to avoid enemy defenses. While these new aircraft were safer than the earlier modified versions, the risks remained.
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In November 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower directed the CIA to develop the U-2 reconnaissance plane under a project codenamed AQUATONE. This revolutionary aircraft used sophisticated cameras to capture images from an altitude in excess of 70,000 feet, beyond the reach of anti-aircraft defenses used at the time. Director of Central Intelligence Allen W. Dulles told his special assistant, Dr. Richard M. Bissell, Jr., to direct the highly classified project. Eisenhower reportedly favored CIA management over that of the military, because he wanted to avoid the Department of Defense bureaucracy and inter-service rivalries. Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, director of the Advanced Development Projects Division at the Lockheed Corporation, known as the “Skunk Works,” conceived an early design of the U-2 (designated CL-282) in 1952, following completion of the Beacon Hill Report. The Air Force, preferring to focus on developing its strategic bomber force, expressed little interest in what they considered a flimsy glider. It was not until the Technological Capabilities Panel’s establishment, and the intervention of Dr. James R. Killian and Edwin D. Land, that the design gained Eisenhower’s support in mid-1954. On March 2, 1955, four months after Eisenhower approved AQUATONE, Lockheed and the CIA signed a contract to build the U-2. Kelly Johnson promised to deliver the first airframe within nine months and the last by November 1956, an ambitious schedule for an industry plagued by costly delays. Kelly Johnson’s team overcame significant technical challenges building the U-2. The higher operating altitude required the team to engineer nearly every component specially. Pratt & Whitney, maker of the J57 engine, attempted to modify the alternator, oil cooler, hydraulic pump, and other parts to operate in the thin air, before substituting a more dependable engine in 1956. Before Pratt & Whitney made the change, oil leaked through the seals of the engine and covered the cockpit’s inside with a greasy film. Shell Oil produced a special high-performance fuel that would not boil-off or evaporate at the lower air pressure. The team developed new lightweight alloys to increase lift and a life-support system for pilots at extreme altitudes. The CIA recruited the U-2 pilots from the Air Force. To become CIA civilian employees, the officers had to resign from the military, with the understanding that once they completed their CIA service, they could rejoin their Air Force units without hindering their promotion potential – a process known as “sheep dipping.” Despite these hurdles, Lockheed achieved Kelly Johnson’s promise to deliver the first plane within nine months. By summer 1956, the first plane, designated Article 351, neared flight trials.
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Open Skies Proposal

President Eisenhower proposed the Open Skies Policy on July 21, 1955, during a meeting in Geneva with Soviet, British, and French officials. The policy called for the United States and Soviet Union to permit acknowledged peacetime, aerial reconnaissance of each nation’s territory. A Soviet agreement would likely have made it possible for America to collect the intelligence it needed to allay fears of surprise attack without risking a shoot down and possibly eliminate the need to continue project AQUATONE. Soviet Prime Minister Nikola A. Bulganin, leader of the delegation, initially reacted positively, but Community Party Chief Nikita S. Khrushchev rejected the idea believing the United States would use the flights to acquire targeting data for its nuclear targeting plans. On July 24, the day Eisenhower left Geneva, Kelly Johnson shipped Article 351 to a secret testing facility in Groom Lake, Nevada, for flight trials.

Operation GENETRIX

On December 27, 1955, while the U-2 underwent flight trials, Eisenhower approved Operation GENETRIX, an Air Force reconnaissance program, which caused considerable international protest and threatened to stop project AQUATONE. GENETRIX used camera-carrying high-altitude balloons released from bases in Western Europe to photograph Eastern Europe, China, and the Soviet Union. Once launched, the balloons drifted eastward on prevailing winds, taking pictures of whatever was below at predetermined intervals. American C-119 aircraft recovered the balloons over the Pacific Ocean. By February 1956, when the president ended the program, the Air Force had launched 516 balloons. Most of the balloons drifted off course, crashed, or were shot down. The United States recovered 46 balloons; only 34 provided useful intelligence.

Although the Air Force issued a cover story that the balloons were part of weather research conducted under the International Geophysical Year, Eastern European nations protested to the United States, the United Nations, and international aviation authorities that the balloons interfered with commercial aviation. The Soviets also collected numerous cameras and transmitters, which they displayed for the world’s press. The unwanted publicity almost convinced Eisenhower that the risks of violating Soviet airspace were too great.

While the photographic intelligence GENETRIX provided was limited, of greater importance was the data that NATO radars obtained as they tracked the balloons. These data provided the most accurate record available of high-altitude winds (knowledge meteorologists later used to determine U-2 flights); information on Warsaw Pact radars and communications; and how high intercepting aircraft could fly. U-2 Operations over USSR

On July 4, 1956, Harvey Stockman piloted the first U-2 over the Soviet Union. He departed from Wiesbaden, Germany; flew over parts of Poland, Belorussia, and the Soviet Baltic, before returning to Wiesbaden. The main targets were the shipyards at Leningrad, a center of Soviet submarine activity. Soviet fighters attempted to intercept the plane, but could not reach the U-2’s altitude. This confirmed that the Soviets could track the U.S. spy plane. The mission outraged and embarrassed Khrushchev, who was visiting the American embassy in Moscow at the time of the flight as a good will gesture on the anniversary of America’s independence. He ordered the plane to be shot down.

The CIA noted marked improvements in Soviet defenses with each U-2 mission. Every flight required the president’s approval, because of the serious risks. Anticipating a shoot down, the CIA and Lockheed began developing the A-12 OXCART, a new reconnaissance plane that could fly higher and faster than the U-2. The two organizations signed a contract for 12 A-12 aircraft on February 11, 1960. Three months later, on May 1, the 24th mission over the Soviet Union, an SA-2 surface-to-air missile downed a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers. Washington initially denied the U-2 was a U.S. plane, but Powers’ capture and trial proved those denials to be false and embarrassed the United States. President Eisenhower suspended all future flights over the Soviet Union after the incident. Powers, convicted of espionage, served in a Soviet prison before being exchanged in a spy swap with Rudolf Abel on February 10, 1962. Legacy of Aerial Reconnaissance

Although President Eisenhower suspended reconnaissance operations over the Soviet Union, the U-2 continued to fly missions over the Middle East, Asia, and other “denied areas.” In 1963, Lockheed began producing three follow-on A-12 versions: 1) the Air Force SR-71 BLACKBIRD, a two-seat version that carried additional imagery and electronic intelligence systems; 2) the YF-12A KEDLOCK, an A-12 equipped with air-to-air missiles to engage supersonic Soviet bombers; and 3) the D-21 unmanned drone and M-21 mother ship under Project TAGBOARD. On May 31, 1967, an A-12 flew the first of 29 BLACK SHIELD missions over Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. But satellite reconnaissance quickly replaced aircraft as intelligence collectors, because space-based intelligence does not endanger pilots or risk political repercussions. The U.S. Government cancelled the A-12 and YF-12A in 1968, and Project TAGBOARD in 1971. The BLACKBIRD operated off-and-on until 1999. The United States continues to operate the U-2, but plans to retire the fleet around 2013.