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National Aerial Recon in the Cold War

Image: Picture of C-130 Aircraft The United States emerged from World War II victorious, with its enemies completely vanquished. Although American leaders at the time expected an extended period of peace and reconstruction based on cooperation with wartime Allies, it soon became apparent that the Soviet Union and its newly expanded bloc of satellites were acting with increasing hostility toward the nations of the West, in particular the United States.

Confronted with a new conflict, a "cold" rather than a shooting war, policymakers in Washington undertook new actions to protect the security of the United States, among them national-level intelligence activities. Most decision makers remembered the trauma of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, which caused heavy loss of life, great damage to the U.S. Navy, and brought the United States into the Second World War. These officials were determined to prevent "another Pearl Harbor."

Image: Picture of EC-121 AircraftThe USSR was a "denied" area, that is to say, travel within its territory for foreigners (or even its own citizenry) was severely restricted. Obtaining reliable information about the country or its military capabilities was difficult, if not impossible, through conventional intelligence methods. In response to this need, defense policymakers established a national program of reconnaissance, carried out by the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy. The U.S. Army also engaged in aerial reconnaissance, but usually in support of tactical objectives, as it did during the Vietnam War.

The existence of the program was kept classified for decades. Although it became obvious that the Soviets knew about some aspects of the program, many key features remained secret from them. However, the decision to keep the program secret had unfortunate implications: it prevented public recognition for the veterans of the program as well as public honors for those who lost their lives while conducting aerial reconnaissance.

Image: Picture of U-8 AircraftDuring the Cold War period of 1945-1977, a total of more than 40 reconnaissance aircraft were shot down. The secrecy of the reconnaissance programs prevented recognition of the slain military personnel at the time of the incidents. Their loss was mourned by their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines in similar programs, but the fallen could not be accorded public honors. The end of the Cold War has allowed the United States to lift some of its security restrictions concerning the reconnaissance programs, permitting us at last to accord due recognition of the achievements and sacrifices of these intrepid military personnel, and to tell their stories.


Date Posted: Jan 15, 2009 | Last Modified: Jan 15, 2009 | Last Reviewed: Jan 15, 2009