Academic journal article Air Power History

Reconnaissance on a Global Scale: SAC Reconnaissance of the 1950s

Academic journal article Air Power History

Reconnaissance on a Global Scale: SAC Reconnaissance of the 1950s

Article excerpt

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. …

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