Reconnaissance on a global scale: SAC reconnaissance of the 1950s.

Author:Cahill, William

From 1949 to 1959 the reconnaissance forces assigned to the Strategic Air 9 Command (SAC) underwent a dramatic transformation that reflected their changing wartime role. Those forces evolved from a fleet of bomber-based reconnaissance platforms to a small group of specialized collection platforms as SAC redefined the intelligence needs associated with its Cold War deterrent strategy. This transformation was based on the emergence of critical aerospace technologies and a shift of SAC's reconnaissance mission from target development to stand-off peace time monitoring of adversary defenses and post-strike damage assessment.

Setting the Stage: SAC Foundations for Reconnaissance

In 1946 the USAAF's headquarters staff envisioned a future based upon the experiences drawn from the world war that had just concluded. From a doctrinal standpoint, these were heady times in the immediate post-war period as strategic bombing had been critical to the success of the allies' campaigns in Europe and the Pacific. Plans were being drawn up for an independent air arm that could build upon the experience gained at the cost of so much blood and treasure over the previous four years.

Unfortunately, post-war cuts to the military starting that year were draconian as America sought to bring home the troops after four years of war and Washington sought to obtain a peace dividend for future budgets. Bomber and fighter units were demobilized and their aircraft scrapped, while those machines that survived the torch were parked in long-term storage. Post-war plans rapidly changed from building a balanced air arm to simply preserving assets. The few reconnaissance aircraft that remained available to SAC after the draw down had to prove their "utility" in an era of austerity, so SAC Commander Gen George Kenney and his deputy Maj Gen St. Clair Streett focused their efforts on activities such as the Post Hostilities Mapping Program that could benefit the growing commercial aviation sector instead of training crews to prepare for war. This activity was in line with Streett's view that SAC's immediate peacetime mission consisted of basic flying proficiency and mobilization and deployment preparedness rather than combat proficiency. (1) With less than five percent of the Earth's surface mapped in detail, mapping became the priority of United States Air Force (USAF) reconnaissance forces until the outbreak of the Korean War, and SAC assets would play a critical role. (2)

Activated in March 1946, the 311th Reconnaissance Wing was tasked with carrying out photographic and reconnaissance missions within the U.S. and overseas for SAC and USAF Headquarters. By default, this wing became the USAF's mapping service and was assigned to the Aeronautical Chart Service, an organization that not only made aerial navigation charts but also produced target folders for SAC. (3) As for flying units, the wing controlled two overseas units that were conducting mapping operations, along with a third squadron that was mapping the U.S.

The following year, SAC started to get serious about reconnaissance. The 311th Reconnaissance Wing was transferred from Fifteenth Air Force to SAC Headquarters and in February 1947, a major subordinate unit, the 55th Reconnaissance Group (RG), was activated with three component squadrons to concentrate on the mapping mission. (4) In April 1948 the 311th became an Air Division in preparation for a planned expansion of SAC's reconnaissance force. While the wing continued its mapping mission, it also supported atomic tests in the Pacific and started to re-equip its units with the Boeing F-13, the reconnaissance version of the B-29 Superfortress, in preparation for global reconnaissance operations. (5) The emergence of an F-13 force (re-named RB-29 in late 1948) in 1948 was linked to cooling relations with the Soviet Union. By July of that year the Berlin Blockade was in effect, and SAC started a policy of deploying forces to the United Kingdom (UK) as a signal of U.S. resolve. While the majority of those forces were bombers, the 311th Air Division (AD) was also required to sustain a presence of at least four reconnaissance aircraft in the UK. (6) The Cold War had started, and SAC now had an impetus to start to refocus the 311th from mapping back to strategic reconnaissance.

Planning a new force

The task of creating a global strategic reconnaissance capability was a daunting one; SAC started by examining its most likely target--the Soviet Union--and developing a force that could be employed against the USSR and its client states. Early studies by the Air Staff discussed the dismal weather often found over the Soviet land mass, and they accordingly recommended a reconnaissance program that centered on radar scope photography, radar mapping and a robust weather reconnaissance capability. Unfortunately, the radar systems of the late 1940s could not provide the resolution necessary to search for targets; those radar sets could only be used to identify previously imaged facilities. (7) Lacking the foundational intelligence necessary to use radar imagery for targeting, the USAF had to field imagery sensors on platforms to first seek out the targets; once they were located, radar sets could be aimed and radar images snapped in all weather, day or night.

Between 1947 and 1950 USAF's Air Material Command, working to SAC's requirements, specified and procured the aircraft that would constitute SAC's reconnaissance force through the late 1950s. Developmental challenges troubling the planned strategic reconnaissance aircraft, the Republic XF-12 Rainbow, opened up the field to a modified bomber platform. (8) The leading contender, the Northrop RB-49, was soon removed from the list due to insufficient range and a two-stage approach followed. In the long run two bomber aircraft in the procurement pipeline, the Convair B-36 and Boeing B 47, would be modified to produce reconnaissance variants; the planned Boeing B-52 aircraft would be purchased with a reconnaissance capability as well. (9) In the interim, RB-29s and Boeing RB-17s remaining from World War II would soldier on. In time, they would be augmented by reconnaissance variants of the Boeing B-50 aircraft, an outgrowth of the Boeing B-29 that was starting to be delivered to the USAF. In mid-1950, plans were finalized and SAC was ready to move forward with its strategic reconnaissance program.

With aircraft procurement planned and programmed for, SAC needed a new concept to most effectively employ its forces. In June 1948 the commander of the 311th AD, Brigadier General Paul Cullen, wrote a letter to General Kenney expressing his concern over the state of SAC's reconnaissance force. Cullen, commander of the 311th from June 1947 until March 1949, outlined a lack of doctrine and capability, stating his fears that war could erupt at any time and the U.S. needed to have modern equipment and tactics in place and adjusted to the new era of nuclear war. (10) At Cullen's direction, the 311th AD staff established an operations research staff that eventually worked with SAC's Headquarters staff to codify the command's reconnaissance procedures. However, those improvements would take time.

In August 1949, SAC Headquarters promulgated a reconnaissance directive that was little changed from the strategic reconnaissance practices of 1945. The document broke reconnaissance operations into six tasks: 1) radar scope photography; 2) bomb damage assessment (BDA) photography; 3) target verification photography (used to develop target folders and bombing strategy); 4) target development photography (essentially lower resolution broad-area photography to find target sets); 5) weather reconnaissance; and 6) electronic intelligence collection by ferret aircraft. In addition, SAC was to conduct mapping and charting missions to meet requirements levied by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). (11) By the time this doctrine was published, SAC was starting to grow its reconnaissance force.

Building a new force

While the Berlin Crisis and the growing recognition of the Soviet threat pushed SAC to the forefront of USAF operations, the appointment of Lt. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay as SAC's new commander had a galvanizing effect upon SAC's operations and culture. LeMay set out to create an operational force in being, able to fulfill the task of deterring the behemoth that was the Soviet military--a path quite divergent from the prior focus on simply maintaining flying proficiency. The new SAC Commander expertly led his organization through the ensuing chaos of rapid growth and expanding responsibilities.

In July 1948, the USAF expanded the 55th RG to make it the first of four planned SAC strategic reconnaissance wings. Later that year the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW) was established, using as a basis the 91st RG which had been transferred to SAC in July. The 91st SRW was unique in that it contained the 324th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron (SRS). Activated to provide airborne training to electronic warfare officers, the 324th was soon given an additional operational role as the USAF's strategic electronic reconnaissance squadron; it was equipped with RB-29 Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft. (12) SAC would maintain a SIGINT squadron throughout the Cold War, tasking its aircraft to fly the perimeter of "denied" territory to provide the bulk of detailed analysis on communist electronic capabilities. (13)

There was considerable activity in the years 1949 and 1950 as new SAC reconnaissance wings were activated and assets were transferred from unit to unit to provide aircraft and training. The pattern would see new aircraft entering the inventory which would result in the older aircraft, usually RB-29s, cascading to a newer unit. In some cases, reconnaissance wings would receive the bomber version of the aircraft they were scheduled to fly to allow training and type conversion to start. A similar birthing process was...

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