I recently posted some new information about the U-2 shootdown on 1st May 1960. Here is some more information, from documents and imagery that was declassified by the CIA after I wrote 50 YEARS OF THE U-2 in 2005. It throws new light on an old question: should Gary Powers have been sent on that mission?
Ten months earlier, on 9th July 1959, another deep penetration of the Soviet Union was mounted. It was codenamed Operation Touchdown, and it took off from Peshawar, Pakistan – the same airbase from which the MayDay mission was launched. Marty Knutson flew all the way to Sverdlovsk and beyond, and returned south to land at Zahedan airfield in Iran.
I knew this much when I wrote 50 YEARS OF THE U-2. But I did not know then, that Knutson flew over no fewer than 19 SA-2 surface-to-air missile sites! It was the first time that SA-2 sites had been discovered anywhere except around Moscow. All but two of them were still under construction, as the Soviets strove to build an air defense network that could deter or destroy unwelcome intruders like the U-2. Four of the unfinished sites were around Sverdlovsk, including Poldnevaya and Kosulino. See the CIA’s photo interpretation report on those two sites, and on the one at Shchelkun (below). Both of those sites engaged the MayDay mission. (As I related in my last post, the air defense troops at Kosulino got the credit for the shootdown, although new evidence suggests that the Poldnevaya site which was the first to fire, actually downed the spyplane).
I have drawn a map of the SA-2 sites around Sverdlovsk, that can be found in my previous post. It shows the six of them that were defending Sverdlovsk by MayDay 1960, and the track of Powers’ flight to the point where it was hit.
Below is an image of the SA-2 site at Kosulino. It was taken by Marty Knutson on Operation Touchdown. When photo-interpreters examined the film from the mission, they judged this site to be in the late stage of construction, although no missiles were seen.
So was the CIA foolhardy in sending Gary Powers over Sverdlovsk nine months later, when they surely knew that the missile sites there would be operational by now? It’s judgement call, and from what we know now, I think they got it wrong.
Between Operation Touchdown and Operation Grand Slam (the MayDay mission), three more overflights of the Soviet Union were conducted. From more CIA documents and photographs declassified since 2005, we know that all of them flew over SA-2 sites, but were not engaged. Indeed, the first two of these flights were apparently not even detected. Meanwhile, the intelligence analysts in Washington DC were evaluating the SA-2’s capability. There were two assessments in March 1960. One concluded that the maximum effective altitude of the SA-2 was about 60,000 feet –about 10,000 feet lower than the U-2’s cruising altitude. The other one did credit the SA-2 with “a high probability of successful intercept at 70,000 feet, providing that detection is made in sufficient time to alert the site.” (my italics).
The CIA launched Operation Touchdown and the following three overflights from Peshawar for this very reason. It knew that the Soviets had not yet completed their early warning radar network along their southern border. Not, that is, until the third of these flights, on 9th April 1960. This U-2 was detected when only 150 miles into Soviet territory. MiG-19 and Su-9 fighters were scrambled and the flight was followed for most of the six-plus hours of the overflight. When it flew over the large air defense test site at Saryshagan, there was an SA-2 site directly below. But it was testing an upgrade to the Fan Song engagement radar, and the missiles were equipped with miss-distance indicators instead of warheads. The test site commanders decided not to fire. For a longer description of this dramatic flight, see Chapter 9 of 50 YEARS OF THE U-2.
The CIA could not have been ignorant of the unwelcome fact that the Soviets had closed their ‘radar gap’. The U-2 was equipped with communications and electronic intelligence sensors that were designed to record air defense activity. Listening stations operated by the National Security Agency around the Soviet periphery eavesdropped on Soviet air defense communications. Through his driftsight, the pilot of this flight (Bob Ericson) may have seen the fighters vainly trying to reach his altitude.
In an attempt to divert the attention of the Soviet early warning radar operators, the CIA had mounted ‘diversionary’ flights along the southern border at the same time as the overflights from Peshawar. I didn’t know about these when I wrote 50 YEARS OF THE U-2, and I will discuss them in a future post on this website. They may have helped the previous three flights escape detection, but they didn’t help on 9th April.
Three weeks later, Gary Powers entered Soviet airspace from the same southern border area, and was duly detected. The rest is history.
With thanks to Lin Xu for his documentary research, and his extraction of imagery from the National Archives.
Story corrected on 5th May to mention a fourth SA-2 site around Sverdlovsk that was seen on imagery from the B4125 mission, at Monetnyy.