Washington, D.C., February 5, 2020 – In the eyes of U.S. intelligence and the military services, the greatest threat to American national security during the early Cold War was the emerging Soviet missile program with its ability to deliver nuclear weapons to targets across the United States. Before the era of satellite surveillance, the U.S. scrambled to develop ever more effective intelligence-gathering methods, notably the U-2 spy plane, spurred on by having missed practically every important Soviet breakthrough of the time – including the first intercontinental ballistic missile tests and the world-changing Sputnik launches.
Early U.S. monitoring of Soviet missile activities is an important part of the history of nuclear weapons and even has parallels to the challenges faced today in tracking the programs of adversary states such as North Korea and Iran. Unfortunately, most of the record, even six or seven decades later, remains highly classified.
However, working with declassified materials from CIA and other sources, James E. David, curator of national security space programs at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, has pieced together a fascinating part of the story of the U.S. missile-tracking effort up to 1957. David’s last E-Book for the Archive described American spying on Communist military parades during the Cold War.
Starting to Crack a Hard Target
By James E. David
Intelligence on Soviet weapons systems during the Cold War was critical to U.S. civilian and military policymakers to assess the nature and scope of the threats they posed and to determine the size, composition, and weapons of U.S. forces. Soviet nuclear weapons were the top priority because of their unprecedented destructive power.
The USSR initially had only bombers with which to deliver these weapons. Just as the United States, however, it was developing surface-to-surface missiles to carry them and other missiles for such purposes as air defense. Missiles were the most threatening nuclear delivery system because they could hit targets very quickly and there were no defenses against them.
U.S. intelligence agencies faced enormous challenges in acquiring information on the Soviet missile program, and early assessments reflected the uncertainty resulting from the lack of timely and accurate data. Foreign missile programs are, of course, still a top priority intelligence target today. Although the collection and analytical resources are much more numerous and capable today, there are many more programs (e.g., Iran and North Korea) that require coverage. Additionally, in contrast to the Soviets in the early years of their missile program, apparently most nations encrypt their telemetry today.
Most U.S. government records on the early intelligence efforts against the USSR’s missile program remain classified today. The Central Intelligence Agency’s Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room has many more relevant declassified records than any other repository. It includes finished intelligence reports such as National Intelligence Estimates and related materials. However, except for overhead photography from the U-2 there has been very little released on the other vital technical intelligence efforts (particularly radar intelligence and signals intelligence). Similarly, there is virtually no available information on cooperation with the British in this field.
The National Security Agency, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the intelligence organizations of the three armed services certainly have large numbers of relevant records from the period in question. Except for a few heavily redacted National Security Agency histories, however, they are still classified.
The Germans had the most advanced missile program of any nation during World War II. They had built the world’s first cruise missile (V-1) and ballistic missile (V-2) and launched many at targets in Belgium, France, and Great Britain. The Germans had also developed the first air-to-surface missiles and used them against allied ships in the Mediterranean and had built but not employed the first surface-to-air missiles.
Just as the United States did after the war, the USSR exploited technical specialists and equipment from the German missile program to bolster their own efforts. The Soviets initially utilized German facilities and personnel in eastern Germany and moved their own scientists there to gain knowledge and experience. They then moved complete missiles, missile parts, technical records, manufacturing and testing equipment, and German personnel to several sites in the USSR beginning in 1947. In contrast to the United States, however, the Soviets sent almost all the scientists back to East Germany by 1953 and the few remaining ones by 1955.
Human sources that had fled to West Germany were the only intelligence source on the Soviet missile program until the early 1950s. At the end of the war, the British established Project DRAGON to interrogate German scientists from various weapons programs. It is unknown how long this effort continued, but they undoubtedly shared some or all the intelligence with the United States. The U.S. Air Force set up Project WRINGER in Germany in 1948 to acquire all types of intelligence from defectors and refugees. Three years later, it became part of the combined armed forces/Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Defector Reception Center. These agencies created a separate organization, the Returnee Exploitation Group, in Frankfurt later in 1951 specifically to interrogate German scientists.
This human intelligence (HUMINT) revealed that the USSR had an extensive missile program. It identified many of the Soviet scientists involved in the program and the locations and purposes of several installations. Germans were at the Kapustin Yar test range southwest of Stalingrad in 1947 for the testing of V-2s captured intact or assembled from parts. They participated in the development of improved V-2s (designated R-10 through R-14) and V-1 (designated R-15) starting the following year. Several missiles that had longer ranges and payload capacities than the V-2 had reached their final design stage by the time direct German involvement in these projects ended in 1951. Development of surface-to-air and air-to-surface missiles also began shortly after the war, but direct German participation in these projects ended in the early 1950s. However, no missile of any type they had worked on ever became operational. The Soviets had a separate missile development program to which the Germans had no access.
The interrogations provided important intelligence but there were still huge gaps. For example, there was no information on the types, numbers, and performance characteristics of any missiles the Germans had not worked on; the types, numbers, locations, and performance characteristics of any deployed missiles; or the locations, features, and purposes of many missile program installations.
The early intelligence reports based on HUMNT acknowledged its limitations and over time proved wrong in many regards. U.S. intelligence agencies needed to employ various technical intelligence systems to obtain timely and accurate information. However, building and deploying these assets would take many years.
Although almost all the details remain classified, communications intelligence (COMINT) began furnishing data on the Soviet missile program in the early 1950s. Under the direction of the National Security Agency (NSA), Air Force Security Service, Army Security Agency, and Naval Security Group ground stations around the world were the most important platforms intercepting Soviet radio traffic at the time. In 1953, each began building large, permanent sites in Turkey that were critical in collecting traffic on the missile program from the western USSR. Their installations in Alaska and Japan undoubtedly intercepted most of the communications in the Soviet Far East. While processing of some intercepts took place in the theaters, the NSA conducted the majority in the United States.
COMINT provided information on flight tests of several different short- and medium-range missiles at the Kapustin Yar range beginning in October 1953. From that date through May 1958, intercepts disclosed a total of 70 successful tests, 24 cancellations, 1 failure, and 23 with unknown results. In 1955, COMINT revealed the start of construction by the Ministry of Defense of possible missile program installations at a site in the Kazakh SSR (eventually designated Tyuratam) and at Klyuchi on the Kamchatka Peninsula. It monitored the building through the end of major construction in 1956. COMINT disclosed that the Soviets used massive amounts of concrete at Tyuratam for launch pads and blockhouses and were installing railroads, electronic facilities, and power and water systems. The intercepts evidently identified some of the scientists whose names had first appeared in interrogation reports as being involved in the Tyuratam project. As shown in the excerpts from the Current Intelligence Bulletin from the fall of 1957 set forth below, COMINT revealed signs of possible upcoming launches at Tyuratam by monitoring transport flights to and from the facility, practice countdowns, communications between Tyuratam and Klyuchi, and communications on Klyuchi’s internal network.
Telemetry was another valuable source of intelligence on Soviet missile activity. Telemetry is the measurement of variables such as temperatures, acceleration, vibrations, propellant levels, and thrust chamber pressures during a rocket or missile’s flight. After conversion into electrical signals, the vehicle radios the signals to ground stations so controllers can assess the performance of the vehicle’s components. Derived from the interception and analysis of these signals, telemetry intelligence (TELINT) provided considerable information on the design and performance characteristics of rockets and missiles. However, the available evidence indicates that the first TELINT collected was in 1958.
The Air Force Security Service built a specialized radar at Diyarbakir, Turkey, in 1955 to collect radar intelligence (RADINT) on missiles launched from Kapustin Yar. It detected them at or shortly after launch and tracked them during flight. Reduction of the recorded data at the Air Force’s Foreign Technology Division at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio determined the trajectory and thus the range. The radar detected and tracked over 500 missile launches from June 1955 to March 1964. A second radar installed in 1964 started collecting information on the size and configuration of vehicles launched from Kapustin Yar. It is unknown when comparable radars began coverage of Tyuratam.
Imagery intelligence (IMINT) provided the locations and details of missile testing and deployment complexes, downrange instrumentation sites, impact areas, engine test facilities, and manufacturing plants. In contrast to HUMINT, COMINT, and RADINT, there is a considerable amount of declassified IMINT on the Soviet missile program through 1957.
Air Force and Navy overflights of the USSR began in 1947, but almost all photographed airfields, radars, and other targets near the borders. From 1952-1956, the Air Force conducted many overflights under the SENSINT program. There were few deep-penetration missions, however, and none photographed any missile program installations. The Royal Air Force did conduct several deep-penetration flights over the western portions of the USSR from 1952-1955, but they did not photograph any either.
In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower approved building the U-2 to perform overflights of the Soviet Union to locate and image bomber bases, nuclear facilities, naval bases, missile facilities, and other important military installations. It would fly higher than any existing reconnaissance aircraft and officials believed Soviet air defenses could neither detect nor successfully attack one for several years. Eisenhower tightly controlled the flights because of their extremely provocative nature and frequently rejected proposed missions or changed a proposed flight path. Following three missions over Eastern Europe, the first four overflights of the USSR were flown from 4 July to 10 July 1956 and covered parts of the western portion of the country. Eisenhower turned down additional missions targeting the USSR and Eastern Europe until November of that year. From that point to late April 1957, U-2s conducted three missions over Eastern Europe, one peripheral reconnaissance flight in the Black Sea and Caspian Sea regions (carrying an electronic intelligence sensor only), and one overflight mission.
On 6 May 1957, Eisenhower approved a limited number of overflights of known and suspected guided missile and nuclear program targets. An 8 June mission targeted but did not successfully photograph Klyuchi on the Kamchatka Peninsula, the site COMINT indicated probably had some connection to Tyuratam. Another flight 12 days later acquired some useful imagery of it. This was the first Soviet missile program installation imaged by aerial reconnaissance. A 5 August mission targeted Tyuratam, but since mission planners did not know its exact location it only acquired oblique photography that confirmed its location but provided few details. Another flight later that month flew directly over the installation and collected excellent imagery. U-2s acquired excellent photography of Kapustin Yar on 10 September and Klyuchi six days later. They did not image either Tyuratam or Kapustin Yar again until 1959 and never photographed Klyuchi again. Systematic coverage of these and other missile program installations did not begin until the advent of IMINT satellites in 1960.
As the intelligence reports set forth below illustrate, once these technical intelligence systems began operations in the mid-1950s they provided increasing amounts of critical data. However, at the end of 1957 there were still major gaps that were not filled for many years.