Reconnaissance activity during the Cold War - an brief overview

Mosquito PR34

As the Second World War drew to a close, before the widespread introduction of radar, victorious RAF and US Army aircraft routinely engaged in overflights across various countries. Very few of these flights were specifically gathering information on potential adversaries, instead the ex-wartime aircrew simply chose to fly the most direct route, much as they had done during the war. Although national boundaries were generally respected, this did little to deter overflights if intelligence gathering was required and there was little if any opposition from the countries targeted. At the cessation of hostilities the victorious wartime alliance between the Soviet Union and the other Western Allies soon deteriorated into outright hostility.

The new political reality was most clearly summarised by Winston Churchill with his speech at Fulton on 5 Mar 46 in which he stated ’From Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic and Iron Curtain has descended across the continent’. As the western allies refocused their attention to the Soviet Union, it quickly became apparent that very little if anything was known about that vast country - a situation that would have to be urgently addressed.

Avro Lincoln

By the end of the Second World War, amongst the Western Allies, the only the RAF and USAF possessed any strategic reconnaissance aircraft. The RAF’s primary reconnaissance platform was the Mosquito. The long-range Mosquito PR34 only entered service at the very end of the war and was subsequently used in operations over Europe and the Middle East. Even before the end of the war a number of Lancaster bombers were converted into Lancaster PR1 photo-reconnaissance aircraft and carried out various tasks over Africa and the Middle East. A number of reconnaissance versions of the Spitfire were developed and operated during the war, but after the war the need for greater range restricted the use of these aircraft. Later, in the early 1950’s, a number of Spitfire XIX's flew sorties against China. The Lincoln bomber was a development of the Lancaster and in the 1950’s a number of these aircraft were used for radar reconnaissance sorties, this task was later augmented by a number of Washington aircraft. The urgent need for intelligence on Soviet activities in East Germany also resulted in Meteor PR10 and modified Venom aircraft being used for quick reconnaissance sorties over the East German border. The first American jet bomber, the B45 Tornado, was later developed into the RB-45C Tornado and flown by RAF crews on radar reconnaissance sorties over Russia. The RAF’s first jet bomber, the Canberra , was soon developed into an excellent reconnaissance platform and was utilised on a number of occasions against targets in the Soviet block. A version of the first of the V bombers, the Valiant , was used to radar map approach routes into Russia for the V Force, the Victor SR Mk2 and Vulcan B Mk2 MMR later continued this work, but concentrated mainly on martime reconnaissance. The Comet R Mk2 was the RAF’s principle electronic reconnaissance aircraft for many years until replaced by the Nimrod R1.


The USAF also responded quickly to the need for effective reconnaissance behind the Iron Curtain. On 10 May 1949 an RF-80A conducted the first overflight of the Soviet Union when it overflew the Kuril Islands in the extreme Soviet far east. The Flying Fortress was converted into the RB-17 / RB-50 and proved an effective long-range reconnaissance platform, setting the trend for converting bombers into this role. The RB-29 / F-13A a redesigned version of the B-29 bomber, operated for many years gathering intelligence along the borders of, and on occasions, into the interior of the Soviet Union. Another highly modified version of the B-29 bomber was the EC-97G this aircraft was used in the electronic recconaissance role for a number of years. The PB4Y-2 Privateer, a version of the wartime Liberator bomber, was also used on many sorties along the Soviet borders. The B-36 Peacemaker bomber was designed during World War 2 to provide the USA with the ability to conduct sorties against Germany from the continental USA. This aircraft was eventually developed into the RB-36D and this huge aircraft had both the range and service ceiling to probe the defences of the Soviet Union via the North Pole.The US Navy also operated a small number of P4M Mercator aircraft for a variety of special tasks. The US Navy also operated their own dedicated reconnaissance aircraft, the P2-V Neptune , for many years as did the CIA using a another version of this excellent aircraft, the RB-69A . The success of the RAF’s Canberra eventually lead the USA to decide to build the aircraft under licence as the B-57. A highly modified version of this aircraft, the RB-57D/F was later used in operations along the borders of the Soviet Union and over China.


Another bomber, the B-47 Stratojet, was also developed into the RB-47 and, despite a fairly low operational ceiling, this aircraft was used for overflights of the Soviet Union on a number of occasions. Another version of this aircraft, the ERB-47H became for many years the USAF’s principle electronic reconnaissance platform. Before the arrival of the U-2 , the absence of a specially designed high performance reconnaissance aircraft forced the USAF into converting a small number of F-100 Super Sabres into RF-100A's and these aircraft conducted some high-risk overflights of the Soviet Union and China. The U-2 gave the USA an entirely new capability and, for a number of years, gave the USA priceless intelligence on areas of the Soviet Union which had been out of reach of other aircraft. The U-2 was later eventually developed into the TR-1 / U-2S . A US Navy attack bomber, the Skywarrior, was eventually converted into the EA-3B / RB-66 and served with great distinction for many years. The B-707 civilian passenger aircraft was soon converted into the RC-135 , a variety of different versions of this aircraft have become the USAF's principle ELINT aircraft and are still in service. The A-12 took aircraft performance to a new level, one that has not been officially exceeded to this day, and allowed these aircraft and it's sucessor the SR-71 to operate with impunity for many years. Rumours persist of a replacement for the SR71, codenamed Aurora , but until details on this and other Future Reconnaissance Aircraft are made public, we can only speculate on both their appearance and levels of performance.