The U-2 and the Cuban Missile Crisis

Built in complete secrecy by Kelly Johnson and the Lockheed Skunk Works, the original U-2A first flew in August 1955. Early flights over the Soviet Union in the late 1950s provided the president and other US decision makers with key intelligence on Soviet military capability.


In October 1962, the U-2 photographed the buildup of Soviet offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, touching off the Cuban Missile Crisis.

U-2 Vs KH-4 Corona satellite

As told by Kevin Wright in his book We Were Never There Volume 2: CIA U-2 Asia and Worldwide Operations 1957-1974, one of the acid tests of photographic reconnaissance is, does it tell you what you need to know? During the Cuban missile crisis, a KH-4 Corona satellite was tasked to generate imagery of Cuba and serves as a useful qualitative comparison point between U-2 and satellite imagery of the day.

Original U-2A Dragon Lady at USAF Museum

The decision was taken by COMOR (Committee on Overhead Reconnaissance) to use a Corona satellite, to image the western part of Cuba, already identified from the previous Agency U-2 missions, as the most developed part of the island and home to the majority of its military infrastructure. COMOR was well aware of the limitations of Corona imagery compared to the U-2, but its invulnerability was a decisive factor.

Corona Mission 9045 lifted off from Vandenberg AFB on Sep. 29, 1962. On its thirtieth orbit of the earth, it passed over western Cuba. Having looked over the imagery, academic Joseph Caddell has described that just frames 11 to 22 covered the western end of Cuba, which was partially obscured by cloud.

No significant photographic intelligence

This imagery was described in a later PFIAB (President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board) chronology of the crisis: ‘the resulting photography was good by Corona standards, but not of sufficient quality to reflect significant photographic intelligence on MRBM (Medium Range Ballistic Missiles) or IRBM (Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile) developments on the island.’ It was not just that the KH-4’s camera resolution was insufficient to see the missiles themselves, it was not detailed enough to identify the host of vital support vehicles and other equipment required by the SS-4 and SS-5 missile systems in the field.

U-2 Vs Corona: why KH-4 satellite failed to provide photographic intelligence during Cuban Missile Crisis while U-2 provided useful Time-critical intelligence
Collage of satellite images, including Corona KH-4 imaging and film recovery system.

Mission 9045 was in space for less than 72 hours before the film capsule was jettisoned as it passed close to Kodiak, Alaska and snatched out of the air near Hawaii by a modified C-119 from the 953rd Test Squadron on Oct. 2, 1962. Returned to Hickam AFB, the film capsule was immediately flown to the US, processed and the finished images despatched from there. Cuba was not the main objective of Mission 9045 – gathering imagery of Sary Shagan and Kamchatka peninsula was. The satellite was programmed to pass over those targets when the sun was in an optimal position for image collection. The pass over Cuba just had to fall in with the planning for the primary targets.

The PIs (Photographic Interpreters) that would have poured over the photography, believed to be from the 544th RTG at SAC HQ, would have concentrated on the Soviet imagery first before looking at the Cuba coverage.

No flexibility in Corona satellite images

The NPIC (National Photographic Intelligence Centre) report for Mission 9045 appears not to have been prepared until Oct. 7, 1962 and so the data was likely already a minimum of seven days old when they examined it. Hardly current by that stage.

Although Corona images produced wide-area coverage, there was no flexibility in what they covered. Its orbit pattern meant it was not possible to cover all of Cuba in a single mission. It was a pre-programmed system over which no control could be exercised once launched.

U-2 print
This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. U-2S Dragon Lady “Senior Span”, 9th RW, 99th RS, 80-329

The U-2 had much greater flexibility in target selection and timing. Whilst re-planning U-2 operations was an expensive process, rearranging a Corona launch was many times more complex and took much longer to do. Neither could Corona photographic material be recovered, processed and assessed in the same timescale as U-2 imagery. Time-critical intelligence was much more likely to remain useful if it was collected by the U-2. However, the considerable advantages of U-2 imagery had to be balanced against the risk to its pilots once SA-2 sites became operational.

KH-4 to identify locations for further U-2 missions

After the crisis had ended SAC photographic interpreters later re-examined the Corona Mission 9045 imagery and determined that it was not possible to identify the SA-2s and other key sites from the space-based imagery. This was a clear limitation on the value of Corona photography until its quality significantly improved.

Over the next few years, the CIA and NPIC used Corona’s wide-area coverage, particularly of the PRC, as an aid to identify locations for further U-2 missions. As the Corona coverage improved it enabled NPIC interpreters to more accurately identify possible SA-2 sites along the routes of planned U-2 missions.

We Were Never There Volume 2: CIA U-2 Asia and Worldwide Operations 1957-1974, is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

This model is available in multiple sizes from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

Photo credit: National Reconnaissance Office and U.S. Air Force