Spy Success: America's 'Dragon Lady' U-2 Spy Plane Helped Win America The Cold War

Spy Success: America's 'Dragon Lady' U-2 Spy Plane Helped Win America The Cold War

Helped by a fur cap and doctored magazine photos, the U-2 spy plane's missions during the Cold War reaped a good deal of useful information.

Movies and novels about spies and espionage usually portray brave and sexy secret agents going deep behind enemy lines to grab some invaluable and potentially destabilizing piece of information. The reality of intelligence-gathering, though, is usually quite different. More often than not, the most important information comes from analysis of raw data collected by agents and operatives who have no idea what they are gathering. This is then collected into intelligence assessments, which give national-level political leaders and military commanders the ability to make informed and thoughtful decisions. Such decisions affect a nation’s policy on military procurement and overseas deployments, as well as relations with potentially hostile foreign powers.

Today, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) controls a vast array of satellites, aircraft, ground stations, and covert operatives to gather a mind-numbing stream of data. They then turn it into reports, presentations, briefings, and assessments, delivering them with an efficiency that would impress Federal Express.

Early Days of the Cold War

This was hardly the case in the early days of the Cold War, however. During the first decade of the East-West conflict, the CIA was a new organization, without many of the tools, personnel, and processes that would make it so effective later. This is the story of one of those assessments, and how two CIA operations called Soft Touch and Touchdown provided the data to make it accurate. It is also the story of how a fur hat and a handful of doctored magazine photos helped the United States and its Allies know the true potential of the USSR to make war.

When the first Soviet atomic bomb was detonated in the fall of 1949, there was little or no notice provided to Western leaders by their intelligence sources. While part of the surprise clearly can be blamed on the paranoid secrecy of the Soviet Union under Stalin, much of the responsibility lay with those assigned to watch the USSR. Over the next few years, the CIA, U.S. military, and foreign intelligence services worked hard to develop solid estimates of the nuclear combat potential of the Soviet military. However, the very geography and nature of Soviet society conspired to hide that information from Western observers. The huge landmass of the USSR made it easy to move large, industrial complexes deep inland, in almost any number that might be required. Just obtaining a basic location inventory of the various factories and design bureaus behind the strategic nuclear weapons establishment took years.

By the early 1950s the need to accurately assess the ability of the USSR to produce nuclear weapons and their delivery systems had reached a point where American presidents were willing to order extreme measures to learn the truth. In short, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower ordered U.S. aircraft to violate the borders and airspace of the Soviet Union and risk war to obtain the information needed. For the first half of the 1950s, though, the tools for this dangerous work were decidedly second-rate.

Most of the early overflights were accomplished with modified bombers, making short dashes into Soviet airspace to photograph or monitor specific targets or airfields. Deep penetrations into the heartland of the USSR were rare and usually run at night to obtain targeting information for bombers of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) and the Royal Air Force (RAF).

The U-2 Fills the Void

By the mid-1950s, though, an incredible new aircraft was about to change the odds of successful overflights and break through the Iron Curtain around the USSR. Built by the famous Lockheed “Skunk Works” in Burbank, Calif., and designed by the legendary Kelly Johnson, the U-2 revolutionized the art of reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering. Flying over 14 miles high and able to photograph objects just a few inches across, the U-2 was the ideal tool to help open up the secrets of the Soviet heartland.

The early overflights of the U-2 in 1956 were a revelation to American intelligence officials and national leaders. Concentrating on obtaining an inventory of the Soviet armed forces, the U-2 program delivered an amazing amount of data in just a handful of missions. In particular, the 1956 overflights dispelled the notion that there existed a “bomber gap” between the United States and USSR. However, this new knowledge came at a heavy price. The very existence of the program was a state secret, limiting the distribution of the photography and intelligence materials derived from it. Also, every overflight mission required a personal authorization by President Eisenhower, and inevitably drew a harsh protest from the Soviet government, which was able to track the U-2 flights. This meant that U-2 missions were few and far between, and only could be authorized for potentially high payoffs. Nevertheless, as 1957 began, analysts at the CIA began to contemplate what they wanted the U-2 to look for when the weather cleared in the spring. What they wanted was context.

CIA Taps the U-2 to Help Read the Future

The 1956 U-2 missions had given the CIA basic numbers, types, and locations of many of the USSR’s nuclear forces. Now the CIA wanted a look at the future, specifically how big the Soviet industrial base for nuclear fissile material (uranium and plutonium) was. Along with data from air-sampling missions, seismic sensors, and other intelligence, this would show how many nuclear weapons the USSR might potentially deploy in the years to come. It would allow projections on future missile and bomber production, and thus the level of future threat to the United States and its allies. The trick was to give the CIA detachments operating the U-2 the necessary coordinates to overfly the various nuclear facilities, most of which had never been seen by Western observers.

Leading the CIA targeting effort on the nuclear side was Henry S. Lowenhaupt, who was trying to puzzle together all the various sources into a coherent set of mission targets. Many means were used to try to pinpoint the location of these key facilities. One technique was to consult with American experts from similar industries, such as those who had built and designed the nuclear production plants at Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Hanford, Wash. This led Lowenhaupt to target areas of the USSR reported to have new hydroelectric dam projects with an excess of electrical production capacity and water. The targeting was fine-tuned by using pre-World War II German data, old travel maps, and amazingly, an old fur hat.

Nuclear facilities near Tomsk had proven particularly difficult to target, until a series of interviews with Soviet and German immigrants began to paint a picture of the area. All told stories of large facilities being built with a vast influx of personnel and their families to work there. The final proof came in the form of an old fur hat from one of the men, which the CIA found had been contaminated with slightly enriched uranium. Other information came from a year-old U.S. reconnaissance balloon discovered floating in the waters off Adak Island, Alaska. When the film from the balloon was processed, not only was it still good, but it also had some useful images of the nuclear plants at Krasnoyarsk.

The Creation of Operation Soft Touch

By late May 1957, the CIA planned a series of U-2 missions to overfly and photograph the Soviet nuclear complexes at Tomsk, Novosibirsk, and Krasnoyarsk, uranium-mining operations in Siberia near the Chinese border, and the atomic weapons test site at Semipalatinsk. The mission series, known by the code name Operation Soft Touch, would also try to photograph various aircraft factories and a suspected ballistic missile test site somewhere in Kazakhstan. It was an ambitious series of flights, made more so by the risks of possible detection or loss of a U-2.

To help conceal the Soft Touch missions from the Soviets, the CIA used several new measures. One was fitting the U-2s with special radar-absorbing materials and wires hung from the airframe. It was hoped that these so-called “dirty birds” might evade Soviet tracking radars, and thus avoid the inevitable protests by the Soviet government. Another new measure was literally to come in from another direction. Most of the 1956 overflights had been flown from airfields in West Germany, right through the heart of the Soviet air defense system in Europe. Soft Touch would fly the majority of its missions from new bases in Incirlik, Turkey (Detachment “B”), and the Naval Air Station at Atsugi, Japan (Detachment “C”). Manned by a newly expanded force of U-2 pilots, Soft Touch would be the largest series of U-2 overflights in the program’s four years.

Despite the excellent job of detective work by Lowenhaupt and his fellow CIA analysts, there still was the problem of obtaining presidential approval for the effort. This meant that senior CIA officials, including Director Allan Dulles and Richard Bissell, went to the White House to brief Dwight Eisenhower on every detail of the plan. Although the Soviets had yet to deploy surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) capable of hitting the high-flying U-2, Eisenhower would occasionally make changes to the flight plans to avoid going too close to areas thought to be potentially dangerous. Finally, he signed each of the mission plans and sent the CIA leaders off to do their jobs.