US aerial reconnaissance of the USSR


Beginning in 1946, United States Army Air Forces conducted aerial reconnaissance flights along the borders of the Soviet Union and its satellite states in order to determine the size, composition, and disposition of Soviet forces.

The necessity of peacetime overflights was reinforced after the escalation of the Cold War in the late 1940s and, in particular, after the Korea War started in 1950. US President Harry S. Truman authorized selected overflights of the Soviet Union in order to determine the status of its air forces. It was feared that the Soviets might launch a surprise aerial attack on the United States with long-range bombers.

First flights

In 1952 a modified B-47B bomber made the first deep-penetration U.S. overflight of Soviet territory to photograph Soviet bombers in Siberia. (Limited coastal overflights had been conducted by aircraft from the US Air Force and the US Navy several months earlier.) This mission established that the Soviets were not massing bombers in eastern Siberia.

Overflights of the Soviet Union with the newly designated RB-47Es continued through 1954, often at great risk, as they were routinely intercepted by Soviet MiGs. It became apparent that a new aircraft was needed that could operate at altitudes well above any Soviet air defenses.

U-2 missions

In November 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a secret program under the direction of the CIA to build and fly a special-purpose high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft named Project AQUATONE. Lockheed was chosen to build the reconnaissance plane and in August 1955 the first Lockheed U-2 was test-flown.

Other strategic reconnaissance missions continued as the U-2 tests were ongoing. In early 1956 Project GENETRIX involved using high-altitude photo-reconnaissance balloons that were intended to collect photographic intelligence as they drifted across the Soviet Union.

During Project HOMERUN (between March and May 1956) RB-47E reconnaissance aircraft flew almost daily flights over the North Pole to photograph and gather electronic intelligence over the entire northern section of the Soviet Union.

On 4 July 1956, the first U-2 flight over the Soviet Union took place. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev angrily protested this overflight and feared that “when they understand that we are defenseless against an aerial attack, it will push the Americans to begin the war earlier.” [1] This prompted the Soviet Union to develop new air defense systems.

Strategic overflight reconnaissance in peacetime became routine U.S. policy. Project OXCART advanced aerial overflight reconnaissance capabilities with the development of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.


US reconnaissance overflights were discontinued after satellite reconnaissance was implemented in 1960. After the 1960 U-2 incident, Eisenhower had to confirm that overflights took place, and claimed that they were necessary for US security. However, Project Dark Gene, a CIA-Iranian program of intrusions into Soviet airspace to explore Soviet air defence systems, continued up to 1979.

More than 40 US aircraft were downed by Soviet forces and about 200 US servicemen were killed; their families were given misinformation by the US military about how they died.[2]

See also


  • "Airpower Classics: B-47 Stratojet." Air Force Magazine, August 2007, Air Force Association. Retrieved: 4 June 2009.
  • Boyne, Walter J. "The Long Reach Of The Stratojet." Air Force Magazine Vol. 66, issue 71, December 1997.
  • Bowers, Peter M. "The Boeing B-47" Aircraft in Profile, Volume 4. Windsor, Berkshire, UK: Profile Publications Ltd., 2nd revised and enlarged edition, 1970. ISBN 0-85383-013-4.
  • Goebel, Greg. "RB-47S in the Cold War."
  • Guerriero, Major Robert A. "Space-Based Reconnaissance."
  • Pocock, Chris. 50 Years of the U-2: The Complete Illustrated History of Lockheed's Legendary Dragon Lady. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Pub. Ltd., 2005. ISBN 0-7643-2346-6.
  • The World's Great Stealth and Reconnaissance Aircraft. New York: Smithmark, 1991. ISBN 0-8317-9558-1.

External links

  • B-47
  • "A Tale of Two Airplanes" by Kingdon R. "King" Hawes, Lt Col, USAF (Ret.)
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.