Peeling the onion layers: Air Force intelligence contributions in the Cold War

PRESIDIO OF MONTEREY, Calif. -- "WANTED: Pilots, Navigators, Electronic Warfare Specialists, Russian, Chinese and Korean Linguists. DUTIES: Acquire intelligence necessary to preservation of national security. JOB CONDITIONS: Long flights in close proximity to - or over - cold war enemy airspace; occasional confrontations by MiG fighters. REWARDS: Personal satisfaction, unsung warrior club membership (with official denial of existence)."
                          - Fictional Air Force recruiting poster, circa 1960

The old adage, "I'd tell you, but I'd have to kill you," is a favorite line in spy movie spoofs. Good for an easy laugh, it's also shorthand for a widely accepted aspect of national security-everyone understands that information potentially harmful to national security must be protected.

But, occasionally, a journalist or historian obtains permission to write about some of what was considered in the past to be sensitive information. In his book, By Any Means Necessary: America's Secret Air War in the Cold War, William Burrows outlines in riveting narrative how the acquisition of electronic intelligence very likely prevented the Cold War from evolving into nuclear hostilities.

At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union had essentially extended its borders to include all of Eastern Europe. The borders were so impenetrable that Winston Churchill coined the term Iron Curtain. By way of espionage, the Soviets had acquired nuclear technology and by all accounts were close to acquisition of delivery systems. Within four years of war's end, communists had won the Chinese civil war and the Iron Curtain was augmented by the Bamboo Curtain. Leaders in the Soviet Bloc conveyed at every opportunity their intention to acquire world dominance.

In response to the threat, the United States developed a strategy of deterrence based on mutually assured destruction. Based on wartime experience, it was obvious that airpower was the centerpiece of the MAD strategy. But credibility depended upon targeting effectiveness, and that, in turn, depended upon acquisition of comprehensive intelligence. It was correctly reasoned that, inasmuch as radars are essential to air defense, the key to targeting is based on electronic order-of-battle intelligence.

In initial years of the Secret Air War, our Strategic Air Command flew photographic and ELINT missions using existing airframes: B-29s and modified B-50s. Eventually jets were added to the intelligence collection effort but General Curtis LeMay resisted efforts to develop aircraft which had no alternative bomber role. It was not until CIA collaboration was attained that a purely intelligence platform, the U-2, was designed.

President Eisenhower clearly understood that our violation of another nation's airspace was contrary to international law, but the soviet threat of preemptive nuclear warfare was of such overriding concern that intelligence collection was authorized "by any means necessary." For diplomatic reasons the extraordinary means could not be publicly acknowledged. To preclude inadvertent exposure, all participants in the program were sworn to secrecy.

In his prefatory remarks, Burrows explains his motive was to write a book "about people, not a catalog of airplanes and missions." He fulfilled his promise admirably, writing with clarity based on numerous interviews of retired ferret aviators and family members of those who did not return. Fortunately, in the process of reporting anecdotal information, Burrows captured the essence of the why the signals intelligence collection program was necessary and how it enhanced our strategy of nuclear deterrence.

In the opening chapter, "Death of a Ferret," Burrows describes a mission flown July 29, 1953 out of Japan. The author begins the tale two days earlier, on July 27, the day the Korean War armistice was signed. Aware that the cease-fire would take effect at midnight, one of our fighter pilots reportedly took a last opportunity to increase his ace kill rating and shot down a Soviet IL-12 transport plane with 21 passengers flying over debated air space.

When our ferret flight departed Yakota on July 29, the Soviets presumably had already decided to shoot it down in retaliation for their lost IL-12. They downed our RB-50G over the Sea of Japan and several crew members reportedly were picked up by Soviet patrol boats out of Vladivostok. Included in the crew of 18 were six "ravens" (ELINT specialists) and two Russian linguists assigned to the Air Force Security Service: Staff Sgt. Ron Hill and Airman Earl Radlein.

The fate of another Cold War flight, this one dedicated to communications intelligence was described by Burrows in his chapter entitled "The Raven's Song." This was a C-130 operating over Turkey and the Black Sea. On September 2, 1958 an aviation navigation beacon located in Soviet Armenia was used to emulate a legitimate transmitter in Van, Turkey. The Soviets were successful in tricking the C-130 flight crew into crossing the border into the USSR---where pre-positioned fighters shot it down. Eleven members of the crew of 17 were intelligence specialists assigned to the Air Force Security Service.

Overall, Burrows provides us with a fascinating account of a previously obscure -- but crucial -- facet of the Cold War. In Chapter Two, "A Spectre Haunting America," he digresses from his primary aviation theme to provide a short history of the evolution of communism from Marx's ideological writings to how it was employed by the Soviet Union a century later. This Soviet 'ideological colonialism' led U.S. leaders to the conclusion that our defensive posture must begin with knowledge. That concern was of such intensity that intelligence acquisition by any means necessary became a cold war imperative.

If Burrows falls short, it's in his unforgiving criticism of Defense Department leaders when it became necessary to inform family members that their loved ones would not be coming home. A tally of his in memoriam figures indicates that 163 airmen and 16 aircraft were lost to hostile action during the Cold War. In nearly all instances, family members were provided cover stories which implied casualties were the result of accidents. Burrows' conclusion that officials were callous may be understandable from a purely humanitarian standpoint but incredibly naive from security and international diplomacy perspectives. His inability to distinguish between "need to know" and "nice to know" is no doubt due in part to his profession -- Burrows is a journalist who formerly reported for The Washington Post and New York Times. Nevertheless, his recount of these cold war missions is well worth reading.