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Bomber Gap

“Bomber Gap” refers to the fear of Soviet superiority in the area of intercontinental bombers, which first arose in July 1957 after Soviets flew their Bear and Bison bombers past American observers multiple times, duping them into exaggerating Soviet capability. The ultra-light, high-flying spy plane was the answer to one of the pressing problems facing the Eisenhower administration — the question of a “bomber gap.” The Soviets had developed the Bison bomber (built to carry a nuclear bomb all the way to the US), but it was unclear whether they had only one, or one hundred.

“The Air Force contended that the Soviets were building many more bombers than we were building,” says CIA historian Donald Welzenbach, “and they wanted more money to build more bombers.”

But Eisenhower, a career military officer, found reports of Soviet superiority to be filled with speculation and rumor. Before building more bombers, which he understood would intensify the Soviets’ paranoia and increase insecurity, he needed information. To get a true picture of Soviet bomber strength, the US needed a spy plane that could fly at altitudes beyond the reach of Soviet defense and radar.

Because the planes would be invading Soviet airspace, the President decided the U-2 would be a civilian-run program, operated by the CIA. “He did not want an Air Force person flying it,” says author David Halberstam. “He knew there were dangers in it.... and he knew [the overflights were] an act of war.”

The architect of the U-2 plane was Lockheed’s tempestuous design genius, Kelly Johnson. A living legend at Lockheed, Johnson had a famous design philosophy, “K-I-S-S” — “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Johnson’s penchant for simplicity was matched by his flair for secrecy.

“It’s just like divorcing your wife; you’re not going to talk to her,” John Ramsey, a Lockheed procurement manager, says Johnson told him. “You’re not going to talk to anybody because what we’re going to do is one of the most secret things that’s ever been done in this country.”

In a top-secret facility nicknamed the “Skunk Works”, off-limits to most employees at Lockheed, Johnson’s team set up shop. Johnson had promised to develop the new plane in eight months, and the technological challenges facing them were substantial: The U-2 would need to fly higher than 70,000 feet and farther than 3,000 nautical miles; it would have to be lightweight, yet strong enough to carry high-tech spy cameras stocked with over a mile of film.

When it was finished, the U-2’s wingspan totaled 80 feet, and its aluminum body was so thin that pilots joked it was made of “Reynolds Wrap.” Once in the air, however, the plane was like the finest of racehorses. “The airplane loved to fly,“ says Henry Combs, a structural engineer. “The nickname was ‘Angel’ and that was because that’s what it wanted to do — it headed for the stratosphere when it took off.”

The first mission over the Soviet Union took place on July 4, 1956. But to everyone’s alarm a U-2 piloted by Hervey Stockman, flying high over Minsk, was spotted by Soviet radar. MiG fighter planes attacked Stockman’s U-2, but the MiGs, with their altitude ceiling of 50,000 feet, were unable to close in on the spy plane.

The Russians knew about the U-2, but the overflights were able to bring back the information the President wanted. “Within several months, we could positively produce facts that the bomber gap didn’t exist,” says Dino Brugioni, a CIA photo interpreter. “We solved the main problem facing President Eisenhower.”

Washington’s reassurance was short-lived. The bomber gap was soon replaced by a national panic over Sputnik — the Soviet space satellite — and a perceived “missile gap.” Americans feared if the Russians could launch a satellite with a missile, they also could launch an intercontinental nuclear missile attack on the U.S. The potential Soviet nuclear strike capability put tremendous pressure on Eisenhower. Sputnik had raised the stakes.

But Eisenhower was reluctant to authorize more U-2 missions. He believed it was only a matter of time before Soviet technology caught up with the U-2 and exposed the American spy program. Pressured by the CIA, which needed information on an operational transcontinental missile base, the President relented. It was to be the longest and most daring mission ever flown. On May 1, 1960, Gary Powers left Pakistan and started his overflight clear across the Soviet Union.But Eisenhower was reluctant to authorize more U-2 missions. He believed it was only a matter of time before Soviet technology caught up with the U-2 and exposed the American spy program. Pressured by the CIA, which needed information on an operational transcontinental missile base, the President relented. It was to be the longest and most daring mission ever flown. On May 1, 1960, Gary Powers left Pakistan and started his overflight clear across the Soviet Union.

“Gary Powers left on a mission, which four years before, Eisenhower had predicted would fail,” says Welzenbach. “If you fly in a straight line long enough, they’re going to get you. And on this day, this was to be the fate of Gary Powers.”

The capture of Gary Powers and the exposure of the U-2 put an end to the spy missions over the Soviet Union as well as to Eisenhower’s hopes for a test ban treaty at the upcoming Paris summit. Powers, who served 17 months of his ten-year sentence in a Soviet prison camp, was ultimately exchanged for a Russian spy.

The U-2, which continued to fly, discovered Russian missiles in Cuba in 1962. The aircraft was still in the skies during the Gulf War in 1991.

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