Bomber Gap, Missile Gap ... Saucer Gap?
The Senator Richard Russell UFO Sighting and the Release of Project Blue Book Special Report 14
Background: The Battelle/Air Technical Intelligence UFO Statistical Study
In 1952, Project Blue Book, the Air Force intelligence organization that collected and analyzed UFO sighting reports -- a unit of the Air Technical Intelligence Center (ATIC) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio -- directed one of its main private contractors, the Battelle Memorial Institute, in Columbus, to perform a statistical survey of the reports in hopes that some sort of pattern could be detected in the data. The stated aim of the survey was "to determine if 'flying saucers' represented technological developments not known in this country." Completed in 1954, the "Analysis of Reports of Unidentified Aerial Objects" study was kept secret until it was abruptly declassified and released to the media in October 1955 as Blue Book's "Special Report 14."
The UFO statistical study was conducted under what was apparently a standing contract that ATIC had with Battelle, a budget item named "Project Stork." Stork seems to have covered a broad range of intelligence-related science and technology research that ATIC required in the course of its studies of foreign aeronautical hardware, such as chemical, metallurgical and engineering analyses, nuclear-materials research, aircraft performance estimates, and other similar engineering studies of interest to ATIC. Stork's name was later changed to WHITE STORK and eventually HAVE STORK. The "HAVE"-series designations assigned to projects by ATIC, Air Materiel Command and their successor organizations covered a wide variety of high-tech programs, many of which involved study and "exploitation" of Soviet hardware recovered by rather "interesting means."
The Stork UFO study was really the Air Force's most significant effort to pin some kind of scientific credibility on UFO reports, compiling data on thousands of incidents, as opposed to the later Colorado University study's hundred or so. As the Battelle project's final report states,
Battelle evolved a standard questionnaire form to enable it to turn raw data into a form that would allow its researchers to code the information onto IBM's famous perforated punch cards.
The Battelle UFO study concluded that
Given its rather dismal conclusion, why was the Stork UFO study kept secret -- and why was it released when it was, in a blaze of Pentagon publicity and media hype?
It is possible to trace the sudden release of the Battelle study to a chain of events that started with a bizarre UFO sighting by a group of Americans who were travelling in the USSR -- a group that included one of the most powerful politicians in the US Congress.
1955 Cold War Events
July 3, 1955 was Soviet Air Day, and a huge military aerial parade was staged at Tushino, one of the major airbases outside Moscow. Data collection techniques on advances in Soviet warplanes had not improved much since late 1948, when Colonel Howard McCoy of Air Technical Intelligence made the astonishing admission that ninety-five percent of the US Air Force's knowledge of new Soviet aircraft came from watching May Day air show overflights in Moscow. Even in 1955, reliable US intelligence on new Soviet aircraft was so poor that the airshow was still a vital source of data. 1
In order to obtain photographs of these overflights, foreign military air officials in the USSR were forced to attend the shows equipped with a variety of overt and covert cameras and attempted to document the passage of aircraft while surrounded by unfriendly Soviet agents. At the 1955 show, the US Air Attaché in Moscow, Colonel Charles E. Taylor, particularly wanted to have a better look at the Soviet Air Force's new strategic jet bomber, which ATIC had code-named "Bison." On May Day the previous year, a prototype Bison had overflown Red Square, shocking western observers who had not expected the Soviets to develop an obviously intercontinental-range jet bomber so rapidly. The Bison looked to be the Soviet answer to the new Boeing B-52A, which first flew in August 1954. Similar in bulk and shape to the B-52, the Russian bomber (designed by Vladimir M. Myasishchev and designated M-4) had four huge turbojets to the B-52's eight and housed a cavernous bomb bay midships in its giant fuselage.
Colonel Taylor was interested to see how many Bisons would participate in the 1955 air parade; the number could help refine US estimates of the rate of construction. A handful of B-52s had just entered service with Strategic Air Command a few weeks before, and SAC wanted to keep ahead of the deployment of Bisons. The accepted guess was that the Soviet bomber would be in quantity production within about a year.
After some preliminary demonstration acts showcasing helicopters, fighter jets and parachutists, the Bisons thundered into view. In typical Soviet military parade style, they were arranged in neat ranks, and Taylor counted six, eight, ten planes as they flashed past. A significant number, but not too troubling. Fourteen M-4s had participated in festivities on May Day. But moments later, the sky began to vibrate to the approach of another formation, and Taylor watched as nine more of the big jet bombers streaked overhead. His concern turned to outright worry when a third group of Bisons immediately bore down on the airfield. Nine more this time. Twenty-eight total; an average production of one every two weeks or so for the previous year. Those kinds of numbers were far greater than prototype runs.
Air Force Intelligence quickly recalculated its figures and came to the conclusion that as many as nine hundred M-4s could threaten the US by 1960. Typically, the CIA, whose analysts used conservative figures to account for factors such as availability of machine tools, labor, materials and transport resources, was far more restrained, predicting a total force of perhaps four hundred to six hundred Bisons by that time.
Congressional talk of a "Bomber Gap" began to grow. In February 1956, the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Richard Russell, appointed a subcommittee to investigate what some saw as the Eisenhower administration's underfunding of the Air Force. Headed by the ultra-hawkish former Secretary of the Air Force, Stuart Symington (other members included Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington, sometimes called the "Senator from Boeing," Sam Ervin of North Carolina, and Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts), the subcommittee quickly became a nexus for scare stories about Soviet strategic airpower. The Symington/Jackson faction of the committee issued a report painting the administration as chronically weak on strategic airpower. Eventually, at Russell's urging and over Eisenhower's misgivings, Congress appropriated a nearly $1 billion boost in Air Force funds, with particular emphasis on SAC. By the early 1960s, almost seven hundred fifty Boeing B-52s and two thousand Boeing B-47 jet bombers would be delivered.
In reality, according to several authorities on Soviet air power, the mass Bison airshow flyby had been a Soviet hoax. Only eighteen prototype M-4s were flyable in July 1955. Later the nature of the ruse would be revealed: the first group of ten planes had orbited around the airfield to be joined by eight more to constitute the second and third waves, making it appear as though there were twenty-eight in the air. The incident had been a ploy to gain leverage at the July 16 Geneva summit conference between Eisenhower, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev. At Geneva, Eisenhower was going to propose an "Open Skies" plan, under which both the US and the Soviet Union would permit reconnaissance overflights by the other; in fact, Eisenhower wanted each nation to provide detailed blueprints of its military facilities to the other, as well as furnish facilities for aerial reconnaissance and photo interpretation operations. If the Soviets acceded, problems like the Bison controversy it would be eliminated. If they did not, and the USSR remained closed to western investigation, the US would be forced to resort to other, covert means to gather military data.
The Soviets rejected Open Skies. By maintaining tight security, they could play for time and exploit the West's insecurities. The Bison was a failure as a strategic bomber - its inefficient engines consumed huge amounts of fuel, and it could reach the continental US with a thermonuclear payload only on one-way suicide missions - but it was remarkably effective at provoking US hawks. By 1960, not nine hundred, not six hundred, not even two hundred Bisons threatened the US. In 1961, the year of their peak deployment, according to Soviet air historian Steven Zaloga, there were fifty-eight M-4s in service. The US had built hundreds of B-52s at enormous cost to match a phantom threat.
The failure of the Open Skies proposal was the trigger for the release of America's "other means" of verification. Diplomatic efforts had failed (as had been anticipated - the overture had to be made); now covert methods of intelligence acquisition were considered the only alternative. The Air Force began preparations for the deployment of its long-delayed Gopher balloon reconnaissance system, and on August 4, the CIA's Aquatone, the Lockheed U-2, which would eventually lay the Bomber Gap to rest, made its first test flight from Watertown Strip, a secret airbase on desolate Groom Lake, a remote, windswept salt flat near the nuclear test range in Nevada.
In the course of its Russell-inspired investigation of Soviet airpower, Symington's subcommittee assembled a lengthy chronology of ominous milestones in Red aviation. Two items under its "1955" heading are particularly intriguing:
The same day that the United Press dispatch was issued, a bizarre UFO incident occurred in the USSR.