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Spying on ScienceWestern Intelligence in Divided Germany 1945-1961$

Paul Maddrell

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780199267507

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199267507.001.0001

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The Uses of the Intelligence Gathered

The Uses of the Intelligence Gathered

(p.271) 10 The Uses of the Intelligence Gathered
Spying on Science

Paul Maddrell

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on the strategies employed by the West in using the information that they acquired. It discusses that fear of wire was instigated by the intelligence of a huge Soviet arms build-up using German weapons technology. It adds that intelligence influenced war planning and weapons development. It explains that in order to gather more information, the USAF used overflight, radar detection, and signal interception. It also discusses that the embargo was based on the information provided by the spies and that it had some success in preserving the West's lead time in applying science and technology to military capability. It also tells that disinformation was certainly an element in British covert action against the Soviet Bloc and included the dissemination of bad scientific ideas in order to conceal technical progress.

Keywords:   information use, intelligence, overflight, radar detection, signal interception, embargo, disinformation


Intelligence of a huge Soviet arms build-up using German weapons technology fuelled fear of war. American intelligence analysts warned in 1949 that, though it was not imminent, ‘Both sides are actively preparing for eventual war’. The USSR, it pointed out, ‘has maintained, and possibly accelerated, its efforts to enhance its military capabilities through both the intensive development of basic war industries and the qualitative improvement of its military forces’.1 This made the gathering of more scientific and technical intelligence crucial; during the Cold War intelligence collection developed a momentum of its own. Scientific and technical intelligence was needed because it reveals what weapons the enemy has and will have, and thus what kind of war to prepare for. It shows weaknesses which can be exploited and strengths against which defence must be made. Thus, it helps to determine what weapons to develop and what military strategy to pursue. It also shows what weapons are not needed and so helps to save money. During the Cold War, it both fuelled the arms race and kept the West from panicking. The CIA's tribute to Pyotr Popov, its spy in the GRU from 1955 until 1959, mentioned that his information had saved at least $500 million in defence-related R&D.2 The frantic and revolutionary weapons development of the period 1945–61 is too large a subject to be examined in depth here. All that will be attempted is to show that intelligence had a significant impact on war planning and weapons development.

Britain was acutely sensitive to its military weakness in face of a Soviet attack and to its vulnerability to an atomic strike. This made it a keen gatherer of intelligence on Soviet weaponry and on the USSR's air and guided missile forces. Financial crisis in the late 1940s also made the government reluctant to spend money on manufacturing new weapons; to avoid falling behind other countries as a result, it gave the highest priority to research and development.3 So intelligence on Soviet R&D was particularly sought after. The intelligence gathered in Germany was passed to the weapons design offices of the Ministry of Supply to guide them in their work.4

(p.272) Of course, intelligence of the other side's weaponry does not solely determine one's own. Political ambition, financial, scientific, and technological resources, strategic thinking, and assessment of the utility of the weapons in question and of the risk of war all play important roles. Economic crisis was a severe constraint on British weapons development. The obvious utility of weapons of tremendous power created pressure to develop them, independently of any intelligence that the USSR was trying to do so. The government's decision, in 1947, to develop an atomic bomb was chiefly motivated by factors unconnected with intelligence: its desire that Britain remain a world power; the momentum of development built up by participation in the Manhattan Project; the need to wield influence with the United States; and the economic benefits of atomic energy. Nevertheless, a further reason was the knowledge that the USSR was developing one.5 Analysis of radioactive fallout from the Soviet thermonuclear test of August 1953 (‘Joe-4’) established that a thermonuclear reaction had taken place; William Penney, the director of the British atomic bomb project, used the analytical data to argue for the development of a hydrogen bomb.6

Intelligence of strenuous Soviet efforts to develop advanced weaponry quickly encouraged the British government to give priority to research into, and development of, new weapons. This is a consistent refrain in the policy documents of the period. In their Global Strategy Paper of 1952, the Chiefs of Staff maintained that the NATO Powers would have to ‘press on with research and development if they are even to keep abreast of the development and re-equipment of the Russian armed forces’.7 NSC-68 shows that intelligence of the first Soviet atomic test had the same effect on the US government. It decided that the looming threat of surprise atomic attack required ‘the intensification of our efforts in the fields of intelligence and research and development’.8

Intelligence also influenced British military strategy and weapons development. The fact that the USSR would soon have weapons of mass destruction convinced the Chiefs of Staff that Britain had to have them, so as to deter the Soviets from using them. As they argued in a paper on ‘Future Defence Policy’ in 1947, ‘The only means whereby we can prevent her [Russia] using them, therefore, is by facing her with the threat of large-scale damage from similar weapons if she should employ them.’9 Military planners seem to have believed that possession by Britain of each weapon of mass destruction might deter the use by the USSR of that weapon. They were attracted to ‘the argument that the preparedness by both sides to use Chemical Warfare in the last war stopped its use during the war’.10 (p.273) Intelligence therefore spurred on the development of chemical weapons and defences against them. British intelligence concluded, in 1949, that the Soviet Union would soon be capable of the mass production of at least one of the nerve-gases. Its reason for this was the intelligence obtained from ex-PoWs of the establishment of a nerve-gas factory at Beketovka using the plant taken from Dyhernfurth and German know-how (see Chapter 4, pp. 111–12).11 The Joint Committees therefore pressed for greater R&D efforts to develop protective clothing for British troops, and equipment to detect nerve gases in the field. Until then the Defence Research Policy Committee had been content with target dates of 1953 for physical protection and 1955 for detection in the field. The intelligence about Beketovka established that quicker progress needed to be made.12

That the Soviets might, in war, make use of chemical and biological weapons was a theme of intelligence assessments from the late 1940s on.13 In the early 1950s, the use of chemical weapons in war played a significant part in NATO's war plans. In 1952, for example, the Air Ministry assumed that 10 per cent of the overall effort of strategic bombers and 5 per cent of the effort of tactical bombers would be devoted to dropping bombs filled with mustard gas. Tabun-filled bombs captured in Germany were modified so that they could be carried in British aircraft. The British planned to use sarin as well. Unlike mustard gas, it was regarded as more of a tactical weapon than a strategic one. Accordingly, while only 5 per cent of the strategic bomber effort would be devoted to dropping sarin bombs, they would account for 10 per cent of the effort of tactical bombers. Britain even briefly manufactured sarin itself in the mid-1950s at a plant at Nancekuke in Cornwall.14

British policy on chemical weaponry and warfare was formed in close consultation with the Americans and the Canadians. The greater the nuclear capabilities of the superpowers became in the 1950s, the more unthinkable was a nuclear exchange between them, which was a factor weighing strongly in favour of using chemical weapons. Nevertheless, military planners held a poor view of the strategic value of biological and chemical weapons. That of biological weapons was insignificant; that of chemical weapons was dwarfed by the strategic value of nuclear weapons. Therefore, Britain ultimately decided that it needed no offensive or retaliatory capability in either chemical or biological warfare. In 1957 it abandoned its programme to develop chemical and biological agents as offensive weapons. From then on, its policy was to rely on the United States: the Americans had these weapons and would use them if Britain were attacked. Nancekuke was closed down. Research into chemical and biological warfare continued; in particular, scientists tried to develop equipment to protect British soldiers against such weapons.15

(p.274) By contrast, intelligence on Soviet research into biological weapons was so limited that British efforts in the field were more a response to the capabilities of biological agents than to hard evidence that the Soviets might use them. In 1952, for example, the Acting Director of Scientific Intelligence noted that, ‘There is … no firm evidence regarding the existence in the Soviet Union of any BW project, whether concerned with research, the mass production of BW agents, or the development of the special weapons and equipment required.’16 Other reports from these years say exactly the same.17 The JIC, in its intelligence assessments, still thought it possible that the USSR might use chemical and biological weapons. The reason was that the Soviet military training programme and statements by those responsible for it indicated that this was possible. Nevertheless, there was no conclusive evidence to this effect and the JIC tended to think that the Soviets would not use these weapons at the start of a war.18

The intelligence obtained on the Soviet army's radio sets in the late 1940s and 1950s served needs of military strategy. If enemy radio communications were to be intercepted or jammed in war, NATO had to know the characteristics of Soviet sets. Above all, it had to know the frequency range on which they operated, so that a frequency jammer could be designed to jam those parts of it and so disrupt Soviet forward area communications. In the early 1950s the British thought that they had more or less complete information on the radio sets then used by the Soviet army. However—a fact which illustrates their failure to penetrate the USSR's research complex—they had no intelligence on the sets which the Soviets then had in development. Almost all Soviet sets then in service worked on High Frequency. For as long as the Soviet army confined itself to a narrow part of the frequency spectrum, there was a clear opening for a major NATO jamming offensive against the High Frequency band in the early days of a war. This would cause chaos among Soviet forces as their ability to communicate with one another by radio was destroyed.

Though the British thought that this was the right strategy to pursue, in 1952 there were many Americans opposed to jamming. Inspired by the Comint triumphs of the Second World War, they believed that Soviet communications should be intercepted instead. With the intelligence gathered of the location and movements of Soviet units and the location and intentions of their high command, NATO's commanders would be better able to fight and win the war. By contrast, NATO forces used a wider range of frequencies. Determined to have the option of jamming Soviet communications, they maintained it by moving to frequencies which the Soviets were not using; intelligence helped them to do this. By the early 1950s most of the US army's tanks had moved up to VHF; the USAF had moved up to Ultra High Frequency. Jamming the HF band would still interfere with a substantial part of British radio communications, but the British were trying to (p.275) move to VHF.19 Planning the use of electronic warfare continued throughout the Cold War. Even in the 1980s contingency planning for a nuclear strike on the Warsaw Pact included provision for jamming or interfering with the communications of the Pact's political and military centres so as to prevent any counter-strike.20

Though Britain had some idea of the scale of the USSR's efforts to develop advanced weaponry, the S&TI gathered during this period was generally inadequate, failing to penetrate Soviet research and development centres. The immense Soviet effort therefore produced surprise after surprise. Intelligence did not warn of the principal advances: the manufacture of jet fighters not long after the war was over (the Iak-15 and MiG-9 were test flown in April 1946); the testing of the first Soviet atomic bomb earlier than had been expected; and the testing of the first-ever thermonuclear bomb in 1953, a year earlier than expected and only nine months after the Americans had tested their first thermonuclear device. The Soviets also deployed a long-range bomber before they were expected to.21

British decisions were affected by the lack of good intelligence. For example, Britain adopted too complacent an aircraft development policy in the late 1940s. At a time when aircraft were developing fast, it decided to wait a decade and then carry out a full re-equipment of the RAF. This greatly underestimated the speed of Soviet development and many types of RAF aircraft lagged behind Soviet counterparts throughout the 1950s. The MiG-15, for example, was far more sophisticated a plane than the British expected.22 Better intelligence would have facilitated the adoption of a more appropriate policy. The intelligence obtained was alarming: it told them that they had to spend money on research and development, but was not good enough to show either what was coming next or when it was safe to stop spending. For the latter information they had to wait for aerial reconnaissance of the USSR. Their German sources gave them information crucial to these operations, too. Of course, the intelligence obtained, though it showed a rapid improvement in Soviet armaments, tended to indicate that, overall, the Western Powers were still ahead.

The ex-PoWs' reports on airfields, atomic plants, and cities in the Soviet Union made a crucial contribution to British and American war planning by enabling the RAF and SAC to draw up viable plans for an air assault. The ex-PoWs' information on the location of airfields and atomic plants was essential to the RAF. Britain's highly concentrated population and industry meant that it could not afford to suffer an atomic attack: it would do too much harm. Therefore, one would have to be prevented by destroying the long-range bomber fleet on the ground, at its airfields. Until 1949 the British did not know where these airfields were. Planning for an air offensive until that year concentrated on destroying the industries which made up the Soviet war economy. In 1949 an important change (p.276) took place; it began before the Soviet atomic test, though was given added impetus by it. From then on, air force planners placed more emphasis on the destruction of military targets, particularly airfields and atomic installations.23 It can be no accident that ex-PoWs were, at this very time, providing information on precisely these targets.

SAC's targeting strategy likewise became more varied from 1950, though its core remained an onslaught on the USSR's cities and the war industries centred there. In that year the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave high priority to the destruction of airfields, so as to pre-empt a Soviet atomic attack, and of atomic plants, so as to diminish the USSR's ability to wage atomic warfare. As with the British, this was an effort at limiting the damage the Soviets could do. Of course, SAC's war planning was more ambitious than the RAF's. Its aim was nothing less than to inflict defeat on the Soviet Union in any future war by means of a strategic offensive. The problem in the late 1940s was that it did not have the target information with which to draw up adequate plans for accomplishing this mission or to train its pilots to carry it out. Its commander was determined to deliver at least 80 per cent of the entire American atomic stockpile in a single attack, and to maintain his force in a constant state of readiness. ‘Wringer’ interviewers were, therefore, told to obtain information which would enable plans of cities and other targets to be drawn up, and other training aids to be made. A large proportion of the reports duly provided descriptions of industrial and military installations and of the areas in which they were located. On the basis of the reports, three-dimensional models of targeted cities were made and photographed on film which showed what the target would look like as a radar image. As LeMay made clear in his autobiography, such intelligence played a crucial role in his training programme:

We fathered a master war plan. Everyone knew, eventually, what he was going to do. Each crew was assigned an enemy target, and they studied those targets … People working for us and with us invented and constructed training aids whereby a man, if he was assigned a target at Moscow, could bomb Moscow hundreds of times, merely by using his training aid.24

Some of the information on targeted places even shed light on the air defences around them and their consequent vulnerability to air attack. This information influenced SAC's planners in deciding how strong a force to allocate to attacking them. The ‘Wringer’ interviewing teams maintained that they produced more than half of all the intelligence reports on the Soviet Bloc used by SAC in preparing its war plans. Of course, this information also served the institutional interests of the SAC in its competition for primacy with the army and navy. Shedding light, as it did, on the military-industrial reconstruction of the Soviet Union, it showed (p.277) how large a task a knockout atomic assault would be. It was, therefore, used to help make the case for expansion both of the SAC and of the nuclear stockpile. The expansion of SAC had the highest priority in the military build-up undertaken by the United States following the outbreak of the Korean War. Its importance was such that the USAF was awarded a larger share (more than 40 per cent) of the defence budget than either of the other two services.25


Much of the valuable intelligence gathered from German sources was not scientific and technical intelligence. Rather, they provided a flood of basic intelligence on science and the military-industrial complex in the USSR. This was used to gather more intelligence. Indeed, the Germans laid the foundation stone for the West's intelligence operations against the Soviet Union for the rest of the Cold War; this was the main benefit of their exploitation. In a country as immense as the USSR, these places were at this time impossible to find by any other means. The Germans either identified and located key installations in the Soviet military-industrial complex, or they identified cities, like Sverdlovsk, which were of such industrial significance that a closer look at them was clearly going to pay dividends. This intelligence was used in choosing the routes taken by the spyplanes which, in the 1950s, were sent over the Soviet Union on photographic reconnaissance missions. It also enabled other technical collection measures to be taken. These operations yielded scientific and technical intelligence which had a decisive impact on American defence policy.

The deported Germans were not the only sources of information on war-related installations in the USSR, but they were the main one. Intercepted radio communications and electronic emissions were other valuable sources. By the end of 1952 some 300 Soviet radar stations had been identified, doubtless largely by the USAF s systematic programme of ‘Ferret’ flights and other Sigint operations.26 In the later 1950s communications intelligence revealed possible locations for ICBM sites, including the first such site, at Plesetsk in north-western Russia.27 By the mid-1950s, whatever the nature of their sources, the Americans had clearly had considerable success in identifying targets for air attack and intelligence operations, though intelligence is said then still to have been ‘severely limited’. At the end of 1956 the SAC's basic war-plan target list contained 2,997 targets. Overflight by U-2s in the late 1950s identified a great many new targets, chiefly guided-missile bases, airfields related to the USSR's growing nuclear strike capability, and air defence systems.28

(p.278) Overflight, Radar Detection, and Signals Interception

Intelligence from German sources was, by the late 1940s, already sending spyplanes up into the air. The evidence gathered in Germany of Soviet atomic development caused the USAF to use weather reconnaissance aircraft to monitor levels of radioactivity in the atmosphere well before the first Soviet atomic test was predicted to take place. Early in September 1949 this Long Range Detection Program yielded conclusive evidence that the Soviets had tested an atomic device a few days earlier. Sonic information about the shock wave from the test also revealed the location of the test site, which was near Semipalatinsk, in Kazakhstan. German sources played a bigger role in sending planes into the USSR, since they told the pilots precisely where to go. American and British spyflights against the Western USSR were conducted in collaboration; this was supplemented by a global division of responsibility for aerial reconnaissance. Truman and Attlee reached an agreement to this effect at the beginning of the 1950s.29

Most flights were electronic and photographic reconnaissance flights along the USSR's borders. In these cases, photographs were taken with a camera so installed that it pointed out through the side of the aircraft. Others were shallow-penetration missions. Deep-penetration flights were the rarest of all. Night flights, taking photographs of the radar image of the target, were safer than day flights, taking photographs of the visual image. Both were made. Radarscope images were essential to a bombing assault on the USSR, which would be made at high altitude and (since Soviet fighter-interceptors had not then been fitted with radar) might take place in bad weather or at night, making it impossible for navigators to identify their targets with the naked eye. Soviet fighters' lack of radar also made the spyplane very difficult to track down.

Evidence exists that the British were overflying the USSR as early as 1948. Among the bases used were those at Habbaniya in Iraq, and in Crete, which, being close to the Soviet Union, allowed the RAF to fly deep into its airspace. The Soviets claim that flights were made from Iran. A number of years have been mentioned as marking the start of American overflights; they clearly began at about the same time.30 Until 1956 these missions were flown by aircraft of the USAF and US navy; then the CIA had sole responsibility for them. They were meant to obtain intelligence on bombing targets, air defences, weaponry, and the general level of scientific advancement. Overcoming Soviet air defences would, of course, be essential to any nuclear-armed air attack. The USAF and RAF agreed to exchange target intelligence in 1948.31

(p.279) From 1950 the Soviets defended their airspace very aggressively and American presidents proved reluctant to authorize overflights which would damage superpower relations and risk the lives of American pilots. In May 1950 a US navy Privateer was shot down by Soviet fighters off the coast of Latvia, and President Truman for a time forbade American flights over the USSR. Only one deep-penetration mission was flown during his presidency—in 1952. Dwight Eisenhower, president from 1953, was more determined to obtain intelligence than his predecessor. However, he also wanted to avoid an international incident and authorized overflights only when he thought that intelligence was urgently required. In 1953–4 USAF planes flew missions over Murmansk, the Kola Peninsula, and Siberia. Photographing airfields had highest priority; the most urgent intelligence requirement of the time was to find out whether the Soviets had a long-range air-force capable of attacking the United States. The Kola Peninsula, in the very north of the USSR, was a well-placed forward area from which bomber strikes could be made on the United States. In 1954–5, deep-penetration missions were flown over the western USSR, targeting long-range airbases, military-industrial targets, and Moscow itself. The northern USSR was also overflown in 1956. The USAF flew missions over Eastern Siberia, too. In 1956, at the Tushino air show outside Moscow, Khrushchev threatened the USAF's Chief of Staff, Nathan Twining, that his Canberras would be turned into ‘flying coffins’ if they continued their violations of Soviet airspace.32

One benefit of collaboration with the RAF was that the USAF was able to get round the caution of its presidents. So in the early 1950s it was the RAF which bore the burden of deep penetration of the USSR. British overflights of the USSR continued throughout the 1950s, although by the mid-1950s they were fewer than American overflights.33 Pursuant to Truman and Attlee's agreement, in 1952 and 1954 a special unit of the RAF, equipped with American planes and cameras, undertook overflights of the western USSR. The USAF gave the RAF photographs of the radar images of the targets. Night flights were made over Moscow and the region to the south of the city, and over targets, including industrial cities, throughout southern Russia and the Ukraine. They certainly penetrated deep into the USSR, sometimes 1,000 miles or so into the country. This would take them approximately as far as Kuibyshev or Stalingrad, but not as far as the Urals. The Baltic States were also overflown. The aircraft were RB-45Cs, which could fly high (up to 38,000 feet) and fast. But they were rapidly becoming obsolete, and were unlikely to have the speed or height to evade their pursuers for much longer. From 1953 the Canberra was used, because it was capable of flying beyond the range both of Soviet anti-aircraft weapons and fighter-interceptors. In May 1953 a Canberra B-2 WD952 set a world record for altitude of 63,668 feet. Consequently, it could take photographs during the day. From 1956 the Americans used the Lockheed U-2. In 1958, when President Eisenhower became (p.280) particularly reluctant to authorize the CIA to send its U-2s over Soviet territory, the agency, like the USAF before it, turned to the RAF for help. Four British pilots were accordingly assigned to the U-2 programme and Harold Macmillan was given the right to order them to overfly the Soviet Union. This right he used only twice.34

In conducting their overflights, both the British and the Americans made use of intelligence obtained from their German sources. It was ‘Dragon Returnees’ who established that the location of the principal Soviet MRBM and IRBM testing site was at Kapustin Yar. The Americans certainly received this intelligence from the British; they may also have obtained it themselves. STIB copied its returnee report on the site's location to various American intelligence offices, including, most importantly, the USAFE's Director of Intelligence. It was the USAFE which proposed, in October 1951 (five months later), that technical collection stations be built in Turkey, to the south of Kapustin Yar. From the mid-1950s at least two signals interception stations, Karamursel and Sinop, were in operation there, gathering a wide range of signals transmitted in the USSR, including missile telemetry. The most important base was the radar station at Samsun, operational from 1955, which pioneered the use of radar detection to gather intelligence. Its enormous radar provided a wealth of good information on the missile tests at Kapustin Yar. It was capable of tracking missiles in flight 1,000 miles away (its range was later increased to 3,000 miles). It was able to determine how many tests took place and whether they succeeded or failed. It was also sophisticated enough to ascertain the main characteristics of the missiles being tested and, in particular, their speed, thrust, course, altitude, and approximate range.35 A new era had dawned. Eisenhower's Director of Central Intelligence, Allen Dulles, revealed in his book The Craft of Intelligence that excellent information was gathered on Soviet missiles and missile engines from precisely this time, ending ten years in which it had been very scarce. The missiles tested at Kapustin Yar were shown to be good ones, as were the ICBMs launched from Tyuratam. This knowledge gave added impetus to the Americans' own missile and space programmes. The CIA's intelligence analysts used it to predict accurately how quickly the Soviets' space programme would make progress, and approximately when they would launch their first satellite.36

The British had to make do with inferior information. They intercepted Comint from Kapustin Yar and used it to test whether the ‘informed speculation’ about Soviet missile development provided by sources like Gröttrup was correct. Information about the dates, times, and success rates of test firings was obtained from radio communications made in the area of the site and intercepted by GCHQ. On the basis of this information, the distances covered by the missiles were estimated. This gradually revealed flight characteristics and allowed specific (p.281) types of missile to be distinguished. The rate and sequence of the test firings of the various kinds of missiles enabled conclusions to be drawn about the course of Soviet missile development. Since Kapustin Yar was connected with other war-related installations, other intelligence targets were identified.37 Given the urgency of gathering intelligence on Soviet guided-missile technology, Kapustin Yar was a natural target for overflight. The RAF sent a plane to overfly it in 1953; a modified Mark II Canberra took photographs of the site before making its way to Iran. U-2s overflew the site in 1957 and 1959.38 They also flew missions along the Soviet border during tests there to intercept ground-level telemetry signals.39

Balloons were used as well as spyplanes. Under the half-baked ‘Genetrix’ programme, balloons equipped with high-altitude cameras were released in Europe and sent drifting over the USSR to Japan. The Luftwaffe's aerial photographs of the USSR were well out of date by the end of the 1940s, and they were of those parts of the Soviet Union which lay west of the Urals. The USAF was keen to acquire photographs of the eastern USSR because it lacked, in the words of a memorandum written in October 1950, at the birth of the operation, ‘prints to aid in the confirmation or denial of such reports as those of atomic production centers, of new industrial developments, of new rail yards, and airfields’.40 In other words, it wanted photographs of such installations as Cheliabinsk-40 and Tomsk-7, the existence of which the ex-PoWs had reported; 516 balloons were released in the first two months of 1956. The wind blew many too far south. Useful photography was obtained from only 34 of them. One stumbled across the Dodonovo nuclear refining facility in Siberia (where Krasnoyarsk-26 was located, much of it buried underground). However, the operation was not of much value because it proved impossible to tell precisely where the pictures had been taken. It was called off early.41

From July 1956 the CIA sent U-2s on photographic reconnaissance missions over the USSR. The U-2 could fly above 70,000 feet. In 1955 President Eisenhower gave the Soviets the opportunity of avoiding spy flights with his ‘Open Skies’ proposal, which would have permitted each superpower to conduct aerial reconnaissance of the other. The Soviet government's rejection of the proposal forced him to use the U-2 to obtain intelligence because knowledge of Soviet weapons development was then so poor that the United States did not know what development it had to undertake itself. It faced the prospect of either not undertaking enough weapons development, and so endangering its own security, or spending far too much and undermining its economy. However, unwilling to increase the tension between the superpowers, Eisenhower was very reluctant to (p.282) authorize overflights and only 24 U-2 missions were flown over Soviet territory in the four years of the operation. Nevertheless, the photography obtained related to 15 per cent of the total area of the USSR. In these years, the U-2s had two overriding priorities: to determine the strength of the USSR's long-range bomber and intercontinental ballistic missile forces.42

The U-2's first task was to determine whether there was indeed a ‘bomber gap’ which favoured the Soviets; a large long-range bomber force, widely dispersed, could not be entirely destroyed on the ground and, armed with thermonuclear bombs, could inflict unacceptable damage on the United States. Accordingly, the early U-2 flights targeted the known Soviet bomber bases. The very first flight, on 4 July, photographed long-range bomber bases in the western USSR.43 The second flight overflew aircraft and missile-development centres in the Moscow area, including Ramenskoye airfield, the Fili aircraft factory, the missile factory at Podlipki, and the missile engine centre at Khimki.44 Among the aircraft stationed at Ramenskoye were Myasishchev M-4 (‘Bison’) long-range bombers; the bomber was manufactured at the Fili plant. When 9 of the bombers had appeared at the air force display of 1955, the Soviets had artfully flown them twice past the reviewing stand, so leading the Americans to believe that they had 18 of them and provoking fears of a ‘bomber gap’.45 This, like the first Soviet thermonuclear test two years before, had spurred on the U-2 development programme. But when they were photographed and counted at Ramenskoye, there proved to be far fewer of them than had been feared.46

This is of much interest since intelligence sources in Germany had provided information on Ramenskoye years before. Tokaev had mentioned it in 1948, because TsAGI, the principal Soviet centre for aerodynamic research and development, was a couple of kilometres away. The British knew it then to be an experimental flight-testing centre.47 Germans had had much to do with the base. A Junkers team had worked there, testing the Soviet version of the V-1 and other aircraft. One of its members, a mechanic called Horst Richter, fled the DDR in 1951 and provided the British with information on the airfield. He had also been to two further airfields in the Moscow region, Toplistan and Borki, and gave their location.48 Of course, by the mid-1950s, Ramenskoye's prominence was such that even Western air attachés were allowed to visit it.49 Subsequent flights targeted other places which had once held large numbers of prisoner-of-war camps, such as Byelorussia, Ukraine, and the Crimea. U-2 overflights of long-range bomber bases undermined the idea of a ‘bomber gap’ because they yielded no evidence of a large (p.283) force. By December 1956, only a few months after the start of the operation, estimates of the size of the Soviet long-range bomber force had been greatly reduced.50 They were reduced further in the light of intelligence acquired by U-2 flights in 1957 and 1958. In time, the Americans concluded that there was no ‘bomber gap’.51

Attention then shifted to missile and nuclear targets. U-2 photography also undermined the ‘missile gap’ scare, which had begun in August 1957, when the first Soviet test-firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile had been detected, and had risen to fever pitch with Sputnik's flight the following October. August 1957 was, in fact, the period of the most intensive overflight of the USSR: seven U-2 missions were carried out, under the codename ‘Soft Touch’. One of their tasks was to find the space-launch and ICBM-testing site at Tyuratam, which was indeed achieved that month. The thermonuclear-weapon testing site near Semipalatinsk was also overflown. U-2s overflew areas of ICBM production and possible deployment in the Urals region and Siberia. Searching along railway lines, they failed to find any deployment site.52 Indeed, by the end of 1960 only one such site had been identified—Plesetsk. Satellite reconnaissance late in 1960 established conclusively that the USSR's force of ICBMs was tiny—only four missiles, deployed at Plesetsk. Khrushchev's repeated claims of superior missile strength were a bluff and the Americans, partly thanks to U-2 photography, knew it. This encouraged them to stand firm over West Berlin.53

Atomic production and development installations were also among the planes' targets in the years 1957–9. Biological and chemical warfare installations were photographed as well. Nuclear installations were particular targets of the seven overflights in August 1957 and the information provided by Germans determined the targets chosen. Uranium mines, processing installations, reactors, enrichment plants, weapons production facilities, and stockpile sites were all overflown to confirm intelligence received of them.54 At the very least, German sources provided intelligence of the location of the first four and so helped to guide the U-2s to some of their atomic targets. Among their targets in August 1957 was the enormous nuclear complex Tomsk-7, the plutonium production complex Krasnoyarsk-26, the uranium metal factory near Novosibirsk, and uranium-concentration plants and mining areas in Central Asia. Since Semipalatinsk was also overflown, the flights photographed all stages of the nuclear weapon production cycle, from uranium mining to weapon-testing. They brought back a huge amount of intelligence. It contradicted Antropov's observation to Riehl in 1951 that the USSR's own supplies of uranium were large enough for its needs. Examining the photography, the CIA concluded that a shortage of fissionable material would, (p.284) until 1966, continue to act as a constraint on the Soviet nuclear weapons production programme.55

There were only three flights in 1958 and 1959, partly because, owing to the tension caused by the Berlin Crisis, Eisenhower did not want to aggravate superpower relations even more. One of the missions in 1959 overflew Sverdlovsk-44 and an atomic installation further north, at Nizhnaya Tura; cloud cover prevented photographs from being taken of the Kyshtym reactors.56 Much ignorance about the strength of the Soviet intercontinental missile force still remained. To dispel it, three flights took place in 1960. The first, in February, did not find a single ICBM site, but did photograph a new bomber at Kazan' (where STIB had known of an aircraft factory years before). The second, on 9 April 1960, particularly enraged Khrushchev since the plane took photographs of three of the USSR's most secret weapons development facilities: the great complex at Sary Shagan, where missiles to intercept incoming ballistic missiles were being developed; Tyuratam (again); and, finally, Semipalatinsk (again). Sary Shagan, like Kapustin Yar and Tyuratam, was a research and development centre as well as a testing range; it was overflown in order to obtain intelligence on missile R&D.

The third flight was Gary Powers's fateful mission, undertaken on 1 May. It was the most ambitious of all the U-2 overflights for he was to cross the whole of the USSR. It followed a route marked out by Germans. Powers took off from Peshawar in Pakistan and entered the USSR in the Dushanbe region, where Soviet radar defences were poor. He overflew Stalinabad (where, according to intelligence acquired by STIB in Germany, uranium was mined), passed over Tyuratam, and then, according to one of the CIA's interpreters of U-2 photography, made his way north to overfly ‘the nuclear plants in the Urals’.57 He passed over Cheliabinsk, photographing Cheliabinsk-40 and Cheliabinsk-70 as he did so, and made for Sverdlovsk, where his plane was shot down. Two uranium-enrichment plants (Sverdlovsk-44 and Sverdlovsk-45) were located near the city. In the same region lay the warhead-assembly plant codenamed Zlatoust-36. Not only had the CIA learned the location of Sverdlovsk-44 from returnees but many thousands of German PoWs had worked in the vicinity of the city and their interrogation had established its military-industrial importance. The exploitation of German intelligence documents had stressed the wartime relocation of Soviet war-related industry to the Urals region, as well as Siberia, Kazakhstan, and Central Asia. Even if Sverdlovsk-45 was not among Powers's targets, it will have been too big for any U-2 to miss. Even then it was a very large complex, incorporating a number of plants, where not only was uranium enriched, but warheads were also assembled and weapons stored. Powers had been meant to fly on to the ICBM base under construction at Yurya, the missile test centre at Plesetsk where ICBMs were being deployed, the submarine shipyard at Severodvinzk, various of the many military (p.285) installations in the Kola Peninsula, and, lastly, the naval bases at Murmansk, before landing in Norway.58

Some of the instructions given to the U-2 pilots were so precise that it is difficult to believe they can have come from any source other than a human source who had worked either in, or near, the targeted installation. For example, a British U-2 pilot who managed to photograph a new type of bomber had targeted the very factory in which it was made, as he himself has related:

The picture I was most proud of was of an aircraft factory. The CIA told me to fly exactly down this road through a town. They didn't normally have maps of the town but they did of this town. It was essential to go down this road because on one side of the road was the airframe factory, on the other side was the engine factory. I was able to film both sides.59

On this flight, the pilot took photographs of at least three places on which STIB had gathered information from German sources: the Saratov airbase for long-range bombers; the city of Kuibyshev, where military aircraft were manufactured; and Kapustin Yar.60

So Germans played a notable role in providing spyplanes with targets. Indeed, the utility of the ‘1037(P)’ scientists' information went beyond that. Their information enabled the CIA's photographic interpreters to derive a greater understanding of the USSR's atomic installations from U-2 photographs than would otherwise have been possible.61 By a pleasant irony, the most common nickname for the U-2 was ‘Dragon Lady’. This nickname owed nothing to the intelligence operation of a similar name, but was inspired by an Oriental character in an American comic strip.

German sources thus enabled a penetrating investigation to be made of the USSR's military-industrial complex and war-making capability. Allen Dulles told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1960:

The U-2 program has helped confirm that only a greatly reduced long-range bomber production program is continuing in the Soviet Union. It has established, however, that the Soviet Union has recently developed a new medium-range bomber with supersonic capabilities. The U-2 program has covered many long-range bomber airfields, confirming estimates of the location of bases and the disposition of Soviet long-range bombers. It has also acquired data on the nuclear weapons storage facilities associated with them.

Our overflights have enabled us to look periodically at the actual ground facilities involved with respect to the Soviet missile system programs….

Our photography has also provided us valuable insight into the problem of Soviet doctrine regarding ICBM deployment. It has taught us much about the use … which the Soviet Union is making of these sites for training troops and the operational use of the short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.


The program has provided valuable information on the Soviet atomic energy program…. This coverage has included the production of fissionable materials, weapons development, and test activities, and the location, type, and size of many stockpile sites…. The Soviet nuclear testing ground has been photographed with extremely interesting results more than once.

The photography also has given us our first firm information on the magnitude and location of the USSR's domestic uranium ore and uranium processing facilities vital in estimating the Soviet fissionable material production. We have located national and regional nuclear storage sites and forward storage facilities.62

In short, the U-2 programme was a resounding success. Richard Helms, Director of Central Intelligence under Johnson, declared in 1975 that the U-2 flights had yielded 90 per cent of the hard intelligence on Soviet military developments which US intelligence had acquired in the four years of the programme.63 The programme established both that the USA's war-related scientific research and development was of better quality than that of the Soviet Union, and that its actual military capability was greater. This influenced the Pentagon's research and development programme. The U-2s demonstrated that the United States had better weapons than the USSR and that its strategic weapons—long-range bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles—were more extensively deployed. Moreover, the United States's military advantage was growing. U-2 photographs showed the ‘bomber gap’ to be a myth; Eisenhower's immediate response was to refuse requests from the USAF to build more B-52 bombers. In combination with satellite reconnaissance, U-2 photography also established that Khrushchev's claims to a strong ICBM force were false. Eisenhower therefore refused to increase the numbers of American missiles deployed by manufacturing liquid-fuelled rockets which were now obsolete. Instead, the administration continued with the development of solid-fuelled missiles. The president realized, as he said publicly in November 1957, that ‘the over-all military strength of the Free World is distinctly greater than that of the Communist countries’.64 Consequently, his general response to U-2 imagery was to resist demands for expenditure on weapons to counter weapons he now knew the Soviets did not have. U-2 photography thus averted a further escalation of the arms race and helped to stabilize the Cold War. It was also passed to American military commanders around the world and used by the United States's intelligence agencies to gather more intelligence.65

The utility of the Germans' information did not end with the loss of Powers's plane. Three months later, in August 1960, photographic reconnaissance of the USSR recommenced when the USA's first spy satellite was orbited. Known to the CIA as KH-1, the public knew it as Discoverer XIV. The ‘Corona’ series of satellites, orbited until 1972, made possible photographic reconnaissance of the whole of the (p.287) Soviet Union and its visible military deployments and military-industrial and scientific complexes. The first four successful missions alone provided imagery of some 13 million square miles of the Soviet Bloc. However, the very volume of imagery caused problems. One was in ascertaining where the photographed installation was. As far as the installations already identified and located by Germans were concerned, that was no difficulty at all: the photographic interpreters knew full well where they were. Moreover, as with the U-2 and other spyplane missions, intelligence already gathered from Germans influenced which targets were particularly looked for in examining satellite imagery. To give only a few examples, in August 1960 the nuclear plants at Kyshtym and Sverdlovsk, the airbase at Ramenskoye, the missile development centre at Khimki, and the missile development and testing centres at Kapustin Yar and Sary Shagan were all listed as targets of the highest priority. Other sites on which Germans had provided intelligence, such as the war-gas plants at Dzerzhinsk, were also photographed in the early years of the programme.66 The Americans kept on photographing such targets for the rest of the Cold War. In the 1980s KH-11 satellites photographed test aircraft on the ground at Ramenskoye and chemical warfare vehicles deployed at Shikhani.67 The satellite programme also persuaded US administrations that they did not need frantically to build up American military strength. It allowed them to plan their weapons development rationally and held down the sums allocated to military expenditure.68 In 1967 President Johnson remarked that the space programme, which had by then cost approximately $40 billion, had paid for itself ten times over, simply by reason of the intelligence on the USSR which it had enabled to be gathered.69


Spies, of course, provided some of the information on which the embargo was based. This was valuable intelligence. The embargo had some success in preserving the West's lead time in applying science and technology to military capability. An American intelligence study in 1965 concluded that in a number of respects denial of Western technology had held back the Bloc's military development. Denial of computer technology had hampered Soviet military R&D. Denial of metallurgical technology had prevented the Soviets from developing warplanes as sophisticated as might have been made. Denial of semiconductor and transistor manufacturing expertise and plant had hampered the development of miniaturized military equipment. Denial of telecommunications technology had prevented the (p.288) Bloc States from improving their communications networks and thus their air defence capability. Induced defection may also have played some role in restraining Soviet research and development, though its effect is likely to have been tiny.70 Further evidence for the effectiveness of the embargo is the Bloc's reaction to it. All its secret services made strenuous efforts to obtain embargoed technology illegally. Several Soviet agencies were involved; by the 1980s one alone, the KGB's Directorate T, is estimated to have had a worldwide procurement network of some 20,000 agents. Much of the directorate's recruitment effort was directed at Western scientists, and it maintained a large force of agents among Soviet scientists to identify and recruit them. It obtained much S&TI from satellite services; in 1980 more than half was supplied by the HVA and Czechoslovakia's StB.71


There is evidence that the British and Americans responded to intelligence of the USSR's backwardness and tendency to copy Western technology by instituting operations of scientific deception. Soviet engineers told German deportees in the USSR that they believed that technical literature was doctored to deceive them. The outstanding aero-engine designer Arkhip Liul'ka told Siegfried Günter that he believed that false technical information was put into the British press to conceal technical progress.72 The interviewer of the atomic scientist Karl-Franz Zühlke noted that, ‘Source mentioned that the Russians told the Germans that they were aware of the fact that Americans had planted in some cases obviously wrong information in the technical literature.’73 Disinformation was certainly an element in British covert action against the Soviet Bloc and included the dissemination of bad scientific ideas.74 By the late 1940s representatives of the three armed forces in the government's deception unit, the London Controlling Section, were devising ideas for poor weapons. These ideas were passed to the USSR through agents in Britain and abroad by MI5 and MI6.75 Like the West's research and development, the strategic embargo, and intelligence collection, disinformation was another attempt to contain the USSR's scientific potential and stay ahead in the arms race. Like other measures, it was regarded as worthwhile because Soviet science was seen as less advanced than that of the West. Intelligence of scientific backwardness and copying encouraged it; particular deceptions must have been guided by information on the quality of Soviet science.


(1) ORE 46–49, ‘The Possibility of Direct Soviet Military Action during 1949’, 3/5/1949, in Steury, Front Lines, 162–5.

(2) Murphy et al., Battleground Berlin, 281.

(3) A. Pierre, Nuclear Politics (London, 1972), 152.

(4) DSI/JTIC(52)14, ‘Targets for STIB in Eastern Germany’, 16/6/1952, DEFE 41/153.

(5) A. Goldberg, ‘The Atomic Origins of the British Nuclear Deterrent’, International Affairs, 40 (1964), 426–9.

(6) Goodman, ‘British Intelligence Estimates of the Soviet Nuclear Weapons Programme’, 227–9, 344.

(7) Para. 15, COS(52)361, DEFE 5/40.

(8) NSC-68/2, ‘United States Objectives and Programs for National Security’, 30/9/1950, Folder ‘Meetings: 68, 29/9/1950’, PSF-Subject File, 1945–53: NSC Meetings, Box 180, HSTL.

(9) Quoted in J. Lewis, Changing Direction: British Military Planning for Post-war Strategic Defence, 1942–1947 (London, 1988), 377.

(10) Ibid., 321.

(11) JS/JTIC(49)63, DEFE 41/150.

(12) JS/JTIC minutes, 16/6/1949, DEFE 41/72.

(13) See JIC(47)7/2, CAB 158/1.

(14) CW(52)9, ‘Chemical Warfare Reserve Policy’, 30/7/1952, DEFE 41/157; Hartcup, Silent Revolution, 175–6.

(15) G. Carter, Porton Down: Seventy-five Years of Chemical and Biological Research (London, 1992), 68.

(16) Young to Evans, 1/5/1952, DEFE 41/156.

(17) See JS/JTIC(49)47, DEFE 41/150.

(18) JP(58)65, ‘Biological and Chemical Warfare’, 30/7/1958, DEFE 41/156.

(19) Major Stoney, Signals 3, MI10 Conference 1952, DEFE 41/126.

(20) Eichner and Dobbert, Headquarters Germany, 243–5.

(21) Freedman, US Intelligence, 77–8; Holloway, Stalin, 235.

(22) C. Bartlett, The Long Retreat (London, 1972), 67–8.

(23) A. Macmillan, ‘Britain and Atomic Weapons 1945–1949: The Development of a Deterrence Frame of Mind’, International Politics Research Paper No. 9 (University of Wales, Aberystwyth, 1991), 14–21; I. Clark and N. Wheeler, The British Origins of Nuclear Strategy (Oxford, 1989), 91–111. See also J. Baylis and A. Macmillan, ‘The British Global Strategy Paper of 1952’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 16/2 (1993), 209–10.

(24) C. LeMay, Mission with LeMay: My Story (Garden City, NY, 1965), 436.

(25) Rosenberg, ‘US Nuclear War Planning, 1945–1960’, 39–43; Erdmann, ‘The Wringer’, 178–80.

(26) DSI/JTIC minutes, 18/11/1952, DEFE 41/76; Jones, Reflections, 15.

(27) Freedman, US Intelligence, 72.

(28) Rosenberg, ‘US Nuclear War Planning’, 49.

(29) Peebles, Shadow Flights, 10, 14–27; Lowenhaupt, Studies in Intelligence (2000), 54; Andrew, President's Eyes Only, 177.

(30) R. Jackson, High Cold War (Sparkford, 1998), 37, 47–8; Peebles, Shadow Flights, 8; R Hopkins III, ‘An Expanded Understanding of Eisenhower, American Policy, and Overflights’, Intelligence and National Security, 11/2 (1996), 333.

(31) Cabell to Pendred, November 1948, quoted in R. Aldrich (ed.), Espionage, Security and Intelligence in Britain, 1945–1970 (Manchester, 1998), 97.

(32) Peebles, Shadow Flights, 49–58, 123–9, 140, 162–3.

(33) Aldrich, RIS (1998), 344.

(34) Peebles, Shadow Flights, 22–7, 45–9.

(35) Richelson, American Espionage, 84–7; Freedman, US Intelligence, 69; Andrew, President's Eyes Only, 219–20.

(36) Dulles, Craft of Intelligence, 162–7.

(37) R. Mathams, Sub Rosa (Sydney, 1982), 26–8.

(38) Pedlow and Welzenbach, U-2 Program, 143; Peebles, Shadow Flights, 43–5, 253; cf. C. Pocock, ‘Operation “Robin” and the British Overflight of Kapustin Yar: A Historiographical Note’, Intelligence and National Security, 17/4 (2002), 185–93.

(39) C. Pocock, Dragon Lady: The History of the U-2 Spyplane (Shrewsbury, 1989), 35.

(40) Quoted in Richelson, American Espionage, 129.

(41) Ibid., 138–9; Pedlow and Welzenbach, U-2 Program, 84–5.

(42) Pedlow and Welzenbach, U-2 Program, 93–100, 316.

(43) D. Brugioni, Eyeball to Eyeball (New York, 1991), 30.

(44) Pedlow and Welzenbach, U-2 Program, 105–6.

(45) Prados, Soviet Estimate, 43.

(46) Lashmar, Spy Flights, 143.

(47) DSI/JTIC(50)6, ‘Places of Interest to DSI/JTIC in the USSR’, 1/11/1950, DEFE 41/152.

(48) STIB Interrogation Report No. 305 (Horst Richter), DEFE 41/96.

(49) Richelson, American Espionage, 51.

(50) Pedlow and Welzenbach, U-2 Program, 111–12; Prados, Soviet Estimate, 46–9.

(51) Freedman, US Intelligence, 67; Andrew, President's Eyes Only, 224.

(52) Pedlow and Welzenbach, U-2 Program, 135–9.

(53) Brugioni, Eyeball, 35–55; Andrew, President's Eyes Only, 250.

(54) Pocock, Dragon Lady, 35-6.

(55) Peebles, Shadow Flights, 176–81.

(56) Ibid., 242–4.

(57) Brugioni, Eyeball, 43.

(58) Peebles, Shadow Flights, 261–8; Pocock, Dragon Lady, 56.

(59) Lashmar, Spy Flights, 153.

(60) Peebles, Shadow Flights, 250–4.

(61) Lowenhaupt, Studies In Intelligence (2000), 69.

(62) Quoted in Richelson, American Espionage, 151–2.

(63) Prados, Soviet Estimate, 102.

(64) Quoted in Peebles, Shadow Flights, 198.

(65) Pedlow and Welzenbach, U-2 Program, 316–18; Dulles to Goodpaster, 19/10/1961, in Ruffner, CORONA, 94–5.

(66) ‘List of Highest Priority Targets, USSR’, 18/8/1960, in Ruffner, CORONA, 49–58; CIA/NPIC, Photographic Intelligence Report, August 1963, ibid., 185–9.

(67) J. Richelson, Americas Secret Eyes in Space: The U.S. Keyhole Spy Satellite Program (New York, 1990), 186–7.

(68) Kenneth Greer, ‘Corona’, in Ruffner, CORONA, 38.

(69) ‘Satellite Spying Cited by Johnson’, New York Times, 17/3/1967.

(70) Mastanduno, Economic Containment, 118–20, 325–7; cf. M. Goldman and R. Vernon, ‘Economic Relations’, in J. Nye Jr (ed.), The Making of Americas Soviet Policy (New Haven, Conn., 1984), 168–73.

(71) Andrew and Mitrokhin, Mitrokhin Archive, 283–5; Tuck, High-Tech Espionage, 15. See also I. Pacepa, Red Horizons (London: Heinemann, 1988).

(72) STIB Interview Report No. 182, DEFE 41/102.

(73) Annexure ‘B’, STIB Interview Report No. 253, DEFE 41/106.

(74) Aldrich, Hidden Hand, 178–9, 256, 646.

(75) Unattributable interview.