Sunday, September 29, 2013

Archaeology of the Cold War: The U2 and the History of Overhead Photography


The following post is for those of my readers who are interested in the history of intelligence in this country, particularly during the cold war.   

For those of you participating in my occassional "good citizenship class on the Intelligence Community" and how it works, here are some things I think worthy of note:

1. Projects like this are approved by the President.  2. Congressional approval does not seem to be required back in the "good old days", beyond budget approval.  That is different now, but the details of that will not be apparent in this case, it was before such things. 3. People die.  4. Top scientists of the country devote their time, sometimes without compensation to help make it happen.  5. Some projects are reasonably priced and get done on or ahead of schedule.  6. The different agencies really are different and compete for money and really do want to do things differently.  7.  Projects like this are inherently interdepartmental and ultimately require the agencies to work together.  8. (most importantly) The project helped to deescalate tensions during the cold war on at least three occasions (the bomber gap, the missile gap, the china/taiwan issue).

When the CIA releases a report about a project or projects you can be quite sure that whatever project they are talking about is considered ancient history. In this case we have the release of a report written in 1991 about the origins, operations and results of the CIA ventures in overhead photography via the U2 and A-12 / SR-71 reconnaisance airplanes.

The report itself can be found here:

For those of you who are not aware of how difficult the U2 is to fly (particularly to land) please take a look at the following 4 minute Youtube video. It is, among other things, very funny.

Here are some items that I found interesting and were (for the most part) new to me.

-- Later uses of the U2 included work for NASA and other agencies to map terrain in the continental US for a variety of land management purposes. This I think was before the LANDSAT satellites.

-- I knew the U2 was not pressurized and had a suit for the pilot that was basically a space suit to keep him pressurized.   What I had not realized is that this is one of the first times that this had been done, the U2 was happening in the mid 1950s and that was before the manned space program, so far as I know.

-- Initial testing of the U2 resulted in a greatly increased number of UFO sightings and lead to Project Bluebook, the famous US Air Force study of unidentified flying objects. At the time the U2 was flying higher than common belief thought we could fly, and was catching sunlight during sunset and appeared to be glowing dot of fire at very high altitude to lower transcontinental airplanes.

-- The U2 is really cheap. Less than $1M a pop in its initial configuration (not including extras like a camera, a crew, etc).

-- The U2 was normally flown out of overseas locations because of limited range. It was not refuelled in the air, apparently. This made its very small operational footprint a big advantage over later airplanes (e.g. it used standard aviation fuel, did not need that many people to maintain it, etc).

-- The U2 was really dangerous to fly. Particularly in the later days when we were collaborating with the Nationalist Chinese to photograph mainland China they were losing planes and pilots right and left.

-- The CIA did not want to run these airplanes or their operations, they wanted to focus on their core expertise which was more in the areas of human intelligence. But Eisenhower wanted a civilian agency to run this so that the overflights would be less provocative. In other words, when a plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, they wanted a civilian to climb out not a Colonel in the US Air Force.

-- The Air Force wanted nothing to do with an airplane that could not be used as a military jet. The U2, fundamentally a powered glider, did not have the ability to take the kind of G forces that a military jet has to be able to withstand, so the Air Force rejected it.

-- The SR-71 project started soon after the U2 project because everyone knew that the U2 would not be immune to air defenses very shortly.

-- For a variety of reasons the A-12 / SR-71 was not used ultimately for strategic reconnaisance. It did have a limited role in tactical reconnaisance but was retired after only a few years.

-- The competition / issues between the CIA and the Air Force versions of the A-12 / SR-71 plane was much more complicated and weird than I had realized.

Regarding photography, we learn, among other things:

-- Kodak invented a new thin film for the U2. I presume this has to do with both the incredible weight limitations and also the need to fit a certain amount of film into a limited space.

-- Lots of cameras and lenses were designed for the U2. Several of them would not fit in the limited space available and had to be redesigned.

-- Apparently some of these cameras are still flying in U2s to this day.

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