Operation 'Dragon Return'
The returnees from the USSR played a significant role in Western intelligence collection, just as they did in American subversion policy. They were valued sources because little other intelligence was being obtained on weapons research, development, and production in the USSR in the 1950s. Interest in the Soviets' atomic and thermonuclear capability, guided missiles, and long-range air power was intense. Lack of sufficient information on the first two caused the speed of Soviet progress to be underestimated. Lack of enough information on the latter two gave rise in the United States to overestimation—claims of future inferiority to the USSR in delivery systems which were known as the bomber and missile 'gaps'. These were refuted by imagery intelligence, gathered by U-2 and satellite, in 1956–7 and 1960–1, respectively. At the root of the two debates were arguments about the USSR's capacity to produce long-range bombers and ICBMs. Fear of Soviet intentions led to worst-case forecasts. Intelligence was needed to establish how many were, in fact, being deployed. Until the advent of overhead reconnaissance, no source was able to do this.1
A considerable amount of intelligence was gathered from the returnees, covering many fields of research and development: atomic energy; guided missiles and related technology; aircraft and aero-engines; electronics; torpedoes and mines; artificial fibres; radio technology; optical glass; armaments design; and fuels. The operation also produced whispers of other weapons, such as a 'television bomb'.2 However, little up-to-date intelligence on research and development was obtained. Though some was, it was too speculative to be fully reliable. This accorded with expectations of the operation; these were small from the start because intercepted letters had revealed that the Germans were kept segregated from Soviet projects.3
The returnees' information was of five types. Firstly, much information of little or no consequence was acquired because the Germans in question were employed on work of no scientific difficulty or defence significance. Secondly, much information
1L. Freedman, US Intelligence and the Soviet Strategic Threat (London, 1977), 66–8, 74–80.
2STIB Technical Meeting minutes, 8/3/1951, DEFE 41/10.
3JIC minutes extract, 16/12/1949, DEFE 41/132.