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The CIA and drones: a case of déjà vu

As debate continues over whether or not the Central Intelligence Agency should be allowed to keep its drones, along come declassified documents to remind us that we’ve been here before.

This summer, Freedom of Information Act releases have added previously unknown detail to the Central Intelligence Agency’s role in the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mossadeq in 1953, and revealed Kissinger’s heartfelt conviction that Chile’s Allende needed to be removed. Another recently declassified, pertinent gem is the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) in-house history of the U-2 and A-12 projects, ‘The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and OXCART Programs, 1954-1974’. The U-2 (a designation so loaded with Cold War angst that four lads from Dublin named their garage band after it) is known primarily as the aircraft in which Francis Gary Powers, an American pilot, was shot down over Sverdlovsk, incurring the wrath of Nikita Khruschev and engendering the sort of non-apology that Washington administrations are prone to make when caught with the proverbial hand in the cookie jar. The U-2 (nicknamed ‘Angel’) also had a younger, faster sister, the A-12 (christened ‘Archangel’), capable of speeds in excess of Mach 3. These ‘inquisitive angels’, armed only with cameras and electronic sensors, were intended to conduct strategic reconnaissance over the Soviet Union, operating either so high, or so fast, that interception would be impossible.

Of relevance to airpower, intelligence, and general IR researchers alike, ‘The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance’ tells a compelling tale for several reasons. One is the length to which a state will go to gain intelligence on a potential enemy. As the Cold War deepened into the 1950s, it became obvious to American intelligence that, when it came to the Soviet’s strategic intentions, they had little or none. The few modern maps they had were the products of 1941-1943 Luftwaffe reconnaissance missions; thus, the maps ended at the Urals, only covering parts of Western Russia. The appearance of the Myasishchev M-4 in 1954, a Soviet jet bomber that appeared to constitute a strategic threat, coupled with Khruschev’s insistence that the USSR was making ICBMs ‘like sausages’, created enough panic in the Eisenhower Administration that what might otherwise seem an odd idea, a jet-powered glider with cameras and other electronic intelligence (ELINT) gear, was entertained.

The U-2 was quite fragile; in order to achieve the range necessary for overflights of the Soviet Union, and because, unlike U.S. Air Force reconnaissance aircraft it had no secondary strike capability, as a weight-saving (and thus range-increasing) measure the U-2 was not designed to take much stress. Rough ground handling, crosswinds, or a hard landing would damage the airframe. The only thing preventing the Soviets from shooting down a U-2 would be its operational ceiling, 70,000+ feet, and the Americans’ assumption that Soviet radars would not be able to acquire, much less track, a target at that height. As the Eisenhower Administration was afraid that continuing to employ military aircraft and crews for periphery and overflights, the decision was made to leave the U-2s unmarked, and to put civilian pilots in them. After an initial attempt to recruit foreign nationals as pilots (plausible deniability, anyone?) which was a failure, the Central Intelligence Agency opened recruiting to U.S. Air Force and RAF pilots, who would then resign their commissions to be employed by the Agency. That anyone in the Eisenhower Administration believed or pretended that an unmarked airplane stuffed with cameras and ELINT equipment flown by non-uniformed (but obviously NATO) personnel would not cause an international incident if it was shot down deep inside the Soviet Union should be food for thought for IR researchers studying the use of drones, data-collecting, and other questionable manifestations of state behaviour. It also might help clear up American confusion about what is, and isn’t, an act of war.

Image by US Navy
Image by US Navy

As Bernard and Fawn Brodie noted in their From Crossbow to H-Bomb: The Evolution in Weapons and Tactics in Warfare, the history of warfare has seen a progression, from soldiers creating weapons for soldiers, to civilians creating weapons for soldiers. The U-2 program essentially adds a chapter to this narrative, with civilians creating a weapon for civilians. Or, was the U-2 a weapon? The Strategic Air Command’s General Curtis LeMay did not think so, stomping out of an early interagency intelligence meeting on the U-2 because he “wasn’t interested in an airplane without guns”; the U-2 was simply too postmodern a ‘weapon’ for him. If Clausewitz is correct, and war is the use of force or the threat of force to compel our adversary to do our will, then whatever intelligence we collect to aid either our threat-making, or our understanding of threats made by our opponent, complements our in-the-event-of-war effort.

‘The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance’ is also a cautionary tale of constantly underestimating one’s opponent. The CIA history relates, as mentioned before, that the scientific panels involved in its creation believed that the U-2 would be untrackable, if not unacquirable, by Soviet radars. However, the ‘why’ behind this reasoning is one of the great strategic fallacies powers make, which is to assume your enemy is static and unchanging; American scientists thought all mid-50s Soviet radars to simply be copies of radars sold to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease program. That this was not the case should have been evident to CIA mission planners from the very first U-2 overflight of the Soviet Union on July 4, 1956, which was detected by Soviet radars, though not tracked continuously. Even missions that were not ‘penetration’ flights (see Carol Cohn’s ‘Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals’ for more on the military-industrial complex’s choice of language), i.e. never violated Soviet airspace, were the target of attempted intercept by Soviet fighters. Despite Eisenhower’s ‘rapid disenchantment’ with the program and the calling off of overflights throughout most of 1958 through 1959, enough photography was conducted to dispel the U.S. Air Force’s mythological ‘bomber gap’ and deny them additional funding for B-52s “to ‘catch up’ to the Soviets”.

Another myth that ‘The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance’ helps to dispel is that the downing of Francis Gary Power’s plane over Sverdlovsk was a ‘lucky shot’ on the part of the Soviets. Cursory reading of the CIA’s history of the U-2 program paints a very different picture. As mentioned above, from the very first overflights in 1956, the Soviets had been able to track the aircraft, something the designers and proponents of the U-2 had assured policy makers would not happen.

As early as 1956, Eisenhower questioned “how far this should now be pushed, knowing that detection is unlikely to be avoided.” Nikita Khruschev had remarked that the April 9, 1960, overflight before Power’s May 1 flight should have been shot down, “but our anti-aircraft batteries were caught napping and didn’t open fire soon enough”. Indeed, earlier in 1960 the United States Air Force’s Air Technical Center had released a bulletin on Soviet surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), remarking they now felt the latest generation of SAMs had a ‘high probability of successful intercept’.

On May 1, 1960, Soviet radar started tracking Power’s U-2 before it ever entered the Soviet Union, and, over Sverdlovsk, an SA-2 SAM detonated “close to and just behind his aircraft”. Powers lived, but it was the death-knell for strategic reconnaissance of the Soviet Union.

It also meant the end of the other reconnaissance platform described by the CIA history, the Oxcart/A-12. Intended as a follow-on to the U-2 program, the Oxcart was capable of speeds in excess of Mach 3, and, like the U-2, it was thought that Soviet radars would not be able to acquire or track the aircraft. Much dearer in treasure than the U-2, which cost just under a million USD each at the time, each of the eighteen Oxcarts built cost 20 million USD. Even before the last Oxcart was delivered, Soviet advances in radar meant it would never be used for its intended purpose, strategic reconnaissance of the Soviet Union, and the program was terminated by the Johnson Administration in 1968, yet another cogent, cautionary tale of the defence acquisition process. Defence contractors promise the moon, but political events, production delays, and an adversary who is not static, but ever changing mean that, by delivery day, pricey military hardware can be irrelevant.

Image by CIA
Image by CIA

What conclusions can be reached over this gospel of inquisitive angels? It can be argued that the U-2, despite angering the Soviets with its on-again, off-again trespassing, contributed to Cold War stability between superpowers. Employing U-2 photography, American intelligence was able to ascertain that there was neither bomber nor missile gap, lessening if not preventing a potentially destabilizing arms race. The U-2’s camera work also contributed to American deterrence, identifying thousands of potential targets while charting heretofore unmapped sections of the Soviet Union. However, as with the current drone debate, the U-2 and A-12 programs had the twin problems of lack of government oversight, with CIA acquisition and operations kept from lawmakers, and overlap with United States Air Force operations, making the CIA strategic reconnaissance program redundant. Just as the CIA’s airplanes were handed over to the USAF in the seventies, so now is it being recommended that the civilian-run CIA hand its drones over to the uniformed Air Force because of a lack of oversight and redundancy with USAF activities. Lessons could be drawn from history about what the proper role of a civilian intelligence agency should be. Beyond its ability to question Cold War narratives, it is precisely this relevancy to current debate that makes FOIA Act releases like ‘The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance’ germane to airpower, security, and IR researchers today.

Frank Douglas Aigner did an MA in International Security & Terrorism at the University of Nottingham. He is currently a social studies and history teacher in Middlebury, Vermont.

Published inConflict & SecuritySecret Intelligence and Covert Action

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