Project Equine

…And the high-tech horse it rode in on.

The Lockheed U-2 ushered in a new age of spying and new requirements for photo interpretation. (Denny Lombard/Lockheed Martin)
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When the mission’s flight plan was complete, Reber composed a brief justification memo for Eisenhower’s approval. One paragraph would cover the potential for missile information; another, nuclear information; the third, bombers; and the fourth, the number and types of bonus targets that could be accrued. Bissell noted that the president did not just rubber-stamp the memo: “On at least a couple of occasions he exercised his authority as commander in chief by suggesting the flight plan be altered. He was a cautious man who liked to have contingencies under his control.”

U-2 missions had to be flown over areas free of clouds, so weather conditions were a primary consideration in planning the missions. Ironically, the missions were flown primarily on the basis of information obtained from intercepted and decoded Soviet weather reports. Hyko Gayikian, a chief meteorologist, noted that data for weather over the Soviet Union, while not classified, was sparse. The Soviets transmitted to the outside world only the absolute minimum of information required by the Meteorological Committee of the International Civil Aviation Organization. However, their internal communications were so archaic that they collected their weather data and transmitted it to Moscow using the same carrier waves as radio transmissions. Both the United States and the United Kingdom surrounded the Soviet Union with radio listening sites and intercepted Soviet data. It was transmitted to the United States by wire, so we had complete weather data for the U.S.S.R. several hours before the Soviets did.

As we began processing the first U-2 imagery, a search was being made for a permanent home for the division. One of the requirements was a plentiful supply of water for photo processing. The two most promising sites were the abandoned Sunshine Arcade laundry and the upper floors of the Steuart Motor Car Company building. We settled on the latter. The nondescript Steuart Building was at 5th and K Streets, NW, a crime-ridden area of Washington. The upper four floors would become the division’s home; the lower floors would be occupied by the Steuart automobile sales and repair shops along with the Steuart Real Estate office. “The Steuart Building was not the finest building in the world to work in,” Lundahl recalled. “There was no place to eat, no place to park, no air conditioning, our people were getting mugged on the streets before it was fashionable. I guess the best thing you could say is that it had wonderful security cover, because I am sure nobody would ever believe that anything of any importance to the United States could be taking place in the trashy neighborhood.”

The results from the U-2 test missions were astounding, but the division had only World War II stereoscopes and tube magnifiers with which to view the images. Photographic resolution is the size that an object can be seen on a photograph; a two-foot resolution indicates that a two-foot-square object is visible. The most generally used technical measure of resolution is the number of lines per millimeter distinguishable on the film. A photographic line is actually a pair of lines, one black and one white, that can be seen and counted within one millimeter under magnification. The more lines per millimeter, the better the resolution and the larger the enlargement possible. During World War II, for example, cameras could obtain about 20 lines per millimeter. The U-2 film was resolving an astonishing 100 lines per millimeter. Advances in film technology later produced resolutions of 125 to 150 lines. The U-2 missions were resolving about two and a half feet at nadir. With that type of quality, it was possible to measure nuclear weapons loading pits, new aircraft, missiles, and the like.

Lundahl loved to quote Amron H. Katz, the distinguished scientist from the RAND Corporation: “You take a multi-million- dollar airplane, $100,000 worth of cameras, take off on a hazardous, expensive mission, get back…run the film through comparably expensive processing machinery…and when the photo interpreter gets around to extracting the information on the photography he uses a 10-cent magnifying glass.”

Now a retired CIA senior analyst, Dino Brugioni briefed Presidents Eisenhower through Ford. He flew 66 bombing missions in World War II.

Adapted from Eyes in the Sky—Eisenhower, the CIA and Cold War Aerial Espionage, Naval Institute Press, 2010. Reprinted by permission.

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