Richard S. Leghorn and the Birth of Cold War Reconnaissance

RF-80A; 44-85467; 45 TRS ER.1999.037; M. Gen. S.F.H. Newman

The first to articulate a vision of how the intelligence demands of this new postwar era might be met was Richard S. Leghorn. He had graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1939 with a degree in physics and a reserve commission as an army second lieutenant. In late 1940, Leghorn accepted an active-duty assignment at the Aeronautical Photographic Laboratory at Wright Field. Arriving in March 1941, Leghorn began working with such optical scientists and engineers as James G. Baker, Amrom Katz, Richard Philbrick, and Duncan Macdonald. Leghorn remained at the Aeronautical Photographic Laboratory until late 1942, when he received orders to report for pilot training.

In April 1943, Leghorn was assigned as commander of the 30th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron. He and the unit arrived in England in January 1944 and began flying missions over northern France, photographing German forces, transport networks, and communications facilities, in preparation for the D-day invasion. After the landings on June 6, 1944, Leghorn’s unit flew in support of the U. S. First Army as it advanced through France, during the Battle of the Bulge at year’s end, and finally for its drive into Germany during the spring of 1945.

In the fall of 1945, Leghorn, now a reserve lieutenant colonel, was offered the position of deputy commander of Task Unit 1.52, which was assigned to photograph the Crossroads A-bomb tests. Leghorn returned to active duty and was again working with his former colleagues from the Aeronautical Photographic Laboratory days. During the long trip from the staging base at Roswell Army Air Field to Kwajalein, Leghorn read a copy of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (Europe), which examined the results and lessons of the air campaign against Nazi Germany.

Leghorn was struck by the conclusions reached by the study’s authors. They noted, for example, that “in the field of strategic intelligence, there was an important need for further and more accurate information, especially before and during the early phases of the war.” The report’s conclusions ended with a look to a dark future: “The combination of the atomic bomb with remote-control projectiles of ocean-spanning range stands as a possibility which is awesome and frightful to contemplate.”

Leghorn continued to mull over the report, as well as his own experiences with photoreconnaissance, after reaching Kwajalein. The missions that he and his squadron had flown before D day had been able to monitor the activities of German forces, and Leghorn became convinced that high-altitude reconnaissance could detect in advance any threatening moves by a foreign power. Leghorn saw the power of the A-bomb during the Crossroads tests. Capital ships were sunk or were reduced to “radioactive ovens.” Leghorn’s ideas about what he now called “pre-D-day photography” were crystallized in conversations with the other optical scientists that lasted long into the evening.

What would be required was a whole new philosophy of reconnaissance that would look for warning indicators, force levels, and an enemy’s capability to launch an attack rather than traditional targeting and damage assessment. In the nightly discussions in the makeshift officers’ club, Leghorn argued that this was the only way to protect the United States against an atomic Pearl Harbor. One of the earliest converts to Leghorn’s ideas was Dr. Duncan Macdonald, who had been named head of the new Boston University Optical Research Laboratory (BUORL). It was also Macdonald who gave Leghorn the chance to present his ideas to an influential audience as keynote speaker at the December 13, 1946, dedication of BUORL.

Before representatives from the major film and camera companies, as well as senior AAF officers, Leghorn described his vision of pre-D-day photography. He began by saying that although efforts were under way to create an international political structure to ensure peace, “should an adequate political structure not be established, or if a suitable one is formed which should break down at any time in the future, then military intelligence becomes the most important guardian of our national security.”

Having seen the Crossroads tests, Leghorn understood how the power of atomic weapons had changed the ways in which wars would be fought. He continued: “The nature of atomic warfare is such that once attacks are launched against us, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recover from them and counterattack successfully. Therefore, it obviously becomes essential that we have prior knowledge of the possibility of an attack, for defensive actions against it must be taken before it is launched. Military intelligence is the agency for providing this information, and our national security rests upon its effectiveness, next to a sound international political structure.”

Leghorn then noted: “Aerial reconnaissance, as one of the principal information collecting agencies of military intelligence, can play an exceedingly important role in this period prior to the outbreak of hostilities. This situation is particularly true in the case of potential enemies of a totalitarian, police-state nature where the acquisition of information by the older means of military intelligence is more successfully blocked.” These nations were unlikely to give permission for an overflight, however, and without this authorization such a flight “would be considered an act of military aggression.” Leghorn found it unfortunate that although “peacetime spying is considered a normal function between nation- states, military aerial reconnaissance-which is simply another method of spying-is given more weight as an act of military aggression.”

Because any peacetime overflights of police states would have to be done covertly, Leghorn added: “It is extraordinarily important that means of long-range aerial reconnaissance be devised which cannot be detected. . . . The accomplishment of this objective is not as technically difficult as it might at first appear. Extremely long-range aircraft, capable of flying at very high altitudes, are currently on the drawing boards. . . . Effective means of camouflaging them at high altitudes against visual observations are well known. It is not inconceivable to think that means of preventing telltale reflections of other electro-magnetic wavelengths, particularly of radar frequency, can be developed. With such a tool at hand, information can be secured of a potential enemy’s mining of radioactive materials and his plants-necessarily large-for the production of fissionable products, as well as a variety of other essential data. . . .”

In his one-hour speech, Leghorn outlined the future basis of Cold War reconnaissance: the regular monitoring of an adversary’s military forces to detect any threat of attack. These missions were to be made as an act of national policy, by a specially designed, very-high-altitude aircraft able to escape detection. But his vision was ahead of its time.

As the Cold War was beginning, there was little time or money for Leghorn’s vision of a new kind of reconnaissance. The most pressing intelligence requirement at the time was to assemble target lists for the Strategic Air Command (SAC). The primary source of this information was the Library of Congress. The Air Force Directorate of Intelligence realized that the library contained “open source material” on Soviet cities, industry, and terrain, and Project Treasure Island was begun in 1948 to make use of these resources. Western companies that had built industrial complexes in the USSR during the 1930s were another source of information on the precise locations, layout, and production capability for the original plants.

This open information was combined with captured Nazi intelligence reports and the archive of German aerial photos of the western USSR. Dubbed the “GX” photos, they provided coverage of Soviet cities, industrial areas, shipyards, and military bases. For Soviet Central Asia and Siberia, the air force and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) relied on maps prepared by Mil-Geo, the geographic section of the German Wehrmacht. These maps, which showed rail lines, cities, and natural features such as rivers, were the most accurate then available.

A window into postwar Soviet activities came from interviews of German ex-prisoners of war (POWs) who had been held in the USSR, then returned to occupied Germany. Captured German soldiers had been used as forced labor in the USSR for years after the end of the war. The POWs had worked on repairing damage and on new construction projects such as dams and factories. Despite Soviet security precautions, some POWs were misassigned to work on sensitive projects. The Soviet atomic facilities, for example, were all built by forced labor. As the POWs were moved around the USSR to work on different projects, they picked up information on Soviet industry, power and communications, urban areas, military bases, and military activities such as missile and aircraft development. This material was combined to produce the Industrial Register, a listing of all known facilities in the Soviet Union.

The situation in Europe and the Far East was becoming increasingly dangerous during this period. The economic collapse of Western Europe in early 1947 caused the United States to propose the Marshall Plan. The Soviets saw this as posing the threat of a unified Western Europe and endangering what they saw as their fragile control of Eastern Europe. In early July 1947, the USSR rejected the Marshall Plan and, over the next few months, imposed one-party Stalinist police states on the nations of Eastern Europe. By the spring of 1948, the Soviets were deeply concerned about Western policy over occupied Germany. In an effort to prevent the Western powers from establishing a West German state, the Soviet cut off all road, rail, and canal traffic on June 23, 1948, between the Western occupation zones and the divided city of Berlin, which was deep inside the Soviet-controlled zone. In response to this Berlin Blockade, an airlift began into the city. With the threat of World War III now hanging over Berlin, the first U. S. covert overflights were begun.

The U. S. Far East Air Forces (FEAF) was the first to undertake postwar covert overflights. They started in the spring of 1949, at the direction of the FEAF commander, in response to the Berlin Blockade. Two lieutenants with the 8th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron stationed at Yokota, Japan, were selected to make “carefully controlled, highly classified reconnaissance flights” to monitor the Soviet Air Force in the Far East. One of the pilots was 1st Lt. Bryce Poe II. The RF-80As used for the flights were modified with special long-range tip tanks, which added weight and drag. The missions were initially flown against the Kurile Islands and Sakhalin, then later against the Soviet mainland.

Poe and the other pilot were instructed that if the coast was clear (literally), they would dart into Soviet airspace, cover their targets, and then run for home. Poe made his first overflight on May 10, 1949, taking off from Misawa, Japan, and overflying the Kurile Islands. His first overflight of the Soviet mainland was carried out on March 10, 1950, and covered Vladivostok.

Poe recalled later that “all Soviet target areas had many military airfields with numerous aircraft.” A few of the airfields were covered with stored P-39s and P-63s-parked nose to tail-which had been supplied under Lend Lease during World War II. Poe noted, however, that there were still plenty of the later-model Soviet La-9 and La-11 fighters.

Although the RF-80As had the advantage of surprise, they were frequently chased by these Soviet fighters. Poe recalled: “Although piston-engined, the La-11 had more than enough performance to catch our attention when they attempted interception and we had clumsy extra-long range tip tanks on our RF-80As.” The results of the flights were sometimes unexpected. In one case, an intelligence source reported a missile standing vertically on a launch pad. An RF-80A mission was flown to photograph the suspected missile site. When the film was developed, the “missile” proved to be a large statue of Lenin.

These overflights were accomplished in the face of major technical and logistical shortcomings. The cameras, which were originally designed for use in piston-engine reconnaissance aircraft, could not provide the overlap needed for stereo images at the RF-80A’s higher speeds. Spare parts were in short supply, so cannibalization of air and ground equipment was commonplace, as was “moonlight requisition” among units. Because of the shortages and disruptions, it was difficult to estimate unit readiness or make schedules. For military personnel and their families, strikes by U. S. longshoremen meant that food was in short supply. They had to get by on Australian bully beef, Japanese white fish, and “withered boxes of wartime rations.”


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