Written by Hamid Hussain
Being a friend of the United States is like living on the banks of a great river. The soil is wonderfully fertile, but every four or eight years the river changes course, and you may find yourself alone in a desert.
United States and Soviet Union were engaged in a worldwide competition for dominance after the Second World War. Intelligence gathering was an important part of this power struggle between the two super powers. In the pre-satellite era, high altitude reconnaissance by special aircraft and signal interception were key components of intelligence gathering. In 1950s and 60s, these operations were conducted from United States as well as from bases all around the globe.
A variety of equipment was used to gather intelligence including static electronic monitoring facilities on the borders of Soviet Union, high altitude reconnaissance aircraft such as U-2 and RB-57 to collect electronic (ELINT), signals (SIGINT), photos (PHOTOINT), telemetry (TELEINT) and air sampling for detection of radiation emanating from nuclear test sites. Several agencies including Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Strategic Air Command (SAC) of United States Air Force (USAF), United States Air Force Security Service (USAFSS), United States Army Special Security (USASS) and National Security Agency (NSA) were involved in these wide ranging intelligence activities.
Main focus of these operations was monitoring of missile and nuclear test sites, location of bombers, missile sites and radars and eavesdropping on Soviet communication system. The general agreement between United States and Pakistan was that in return for Pakistan’s cooperation in such activities, United States would modernize Pakistani armed forces. Pakistani part of the deal included provision of facilities for U.S. intelligence gathering operations as well as cooperation in some aspects of the operation. Both parties entered into these agreements looking at their own interests. United States saw Pakistan as a window through which to peep into Soviet Union’s backyard and Pakistan saw this cooperation as a shortest possible way of modernizing its armed forces.
U-2 was a specially designed aircraft for high altitude flights for reconnaissance. It had electronic surveillance equipment for monitoring and recording radar and radio frequencies and a specialized camera for high resolution photographs. These flights monitored radars, air defenses, rocket launches and military and industrial sites. (3) It was a joint operation run by CIA and USAF. CIA paid for the development of the aircraft and Strategic Air Command (SAC) trained the pilots. (4) Most missions were flown along Soviet borders and over international waters and not over Soviet air space. Missions from Wiesbaden base in Germany covered northern and western parts of the Soviet territory while flights from Turkey covered southern parts. (5) U-2 flights also operated from Alaska, Japan and Australia.
President Dwight Eisenhower was fully aware of the potential impact on relations with Soviet Union as far as over flight missions were concerned; therefore he kept a tight control on U-2 operations. He was told by CIA that planes were undetectable by Soviet radar system which proved to be wrong. In 1956, first two U-2 planes were transported to United Kingdom (UK) but UK pulled out of the project at the last minute and planes were shipped backed to Germany. (6) In July 1956, first four U-2 missions over Soviet air space were flown from Wiesbaden base in Germany in ten days period. Soviet radars detected the intrusion but could not identify the plane nor could intercept it. (7) Soviets sent a strong protest note to Washington with specific dates and times of intrusions forcing Eisenhower to order termination of additional flights. Information from these early flights was so valuable that United States could not resist and second mission was conducted in November 1956 from Incirlik base in Turkey. Later, U-2 flights were flown from Alaska, California, Texas, Germany, Turkey, Japan, England, Australia, Brazil, Norway and Pakistan. (8) Most of these flights were flown along Soviet borders and were not over flights. Deep penetration flights were personally approved by the President. In four years, only 24 such deep penetration flights were approved by the President. (9) Most over flights originated from Turkey as it covered large area of Soviet Union including Kapustin Yar testing site, bomber fields and military and industrial targets in Caucus, Ukraine and major cities along Volga. (10)
Pilots chosen for U-2 were reserve officers with exceptional ratings, top secret clearance and extra hours on single engine, single place aircraft. (11) Pilots resigned from the air force and worked under an eighteen month contract for CIA with much higher pay and no loss of service time in USAF when they returned back after completing the contract. (12) In the early stages, it was decided to use non-U.S. citizens for U-2 flights over Soviet territory. The argument made by Eisenhower was that if a U.S. pilot or a member of U.S. armed forces was shot down over Soviet territory, in strict legal sense it could be considered an act of war. Some non-U.S. citizens were trained; however the idea was dropped for two reasons. First, the operation could not be kept highly classified in view of a large number of foreign pilots on the roll and secondly most of the pilots could not sustain very stringent criteria of training for missions at such heights. Four Greek pilots were brought for training in 1956 but none of them completed the training (they were later known as ‘Greek Washout). In view of keeping the secret, CIA kept them in United States sending them to colleges at government expense. (13) Later, Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots were also brought into the mission. In case of Pakistan, when U-2 planes started to operate from Pakistan, no Pakistani air force personnel were involved with the project with the exception of liaison, logistics and administrative assistance in running the operations. (14) In 1956, when Washington approached Pakistan for U-2 flights from Pakistan, Pakistani government hesitated and complained about the slow current rate of military assistance. Since 1954, relations between two countries have been strained due to disagreements on defense assistance issue and lengthy delays due to bureaucratic wrangling in Washington. On January 10, 1957, National Security Council approved enhanced program of military assistance to Pakistan (NSC 5701). The estimated cost of this enhanced program was $410 million for military assistance and $374.7 million for defense support for the three year period of 1957-1960. (15) U.S. committed to raise and support four infantry and one and a half armored division of Pakistan army, absorption of additional 40’000 soldiers in Pakistan army as well as equipment for air force and navy.
In January 1957, Eisenhower approved a three year increase in military aid and next month a restricted area of Peshawar base saw construction to welcome U-2. Richard Bissell was in charge of U-2 program at CIA. His assistant, James Cunningham negotiated with Pakistan army chief General Muhammad Ayub Khan. (16) Peshawar and Lahore were two sites from where U-2 was flown over Soviet territory. A Pakistan Air Force liaison officer was assigned to U-2 program operating from Pakistan. (17) There was no permanent stationing of U-2 planes on Pakistani soil. Detachment 10-10 based at Incirlik base near Adana in Turkey flew missions from Pakistan. Usually, for security reasons, pilot and some essential crew members were flown a night before in a C-130 plane from Turkey. U-2 flown by standby pilot would bring in the plane so that there was least amount of exposure. (18) Main target of flights originating from Pakistan was Tyurtam missile testing site and cosmodrome in Kazakhstan as well as military installations along Trans-Siberian railways and down range radar array that was a terminal site for missile firings from Kapustin Yar. (19) The first U-2 flight from Pakistan flew over Soviet Union and landed at a small desert airstrip near Mashhad from where it went back to Turkey. (20) There were total of twenty four U-2 over flights over Soviet Union from 1956 to 1960. Out of twenty four, ten were launched from Pakistan. First five flights originated from Lahore and the remaining five from Peshawar. The first Soviet over flight from Pakistan took off from Lahore on August 05, 1957. (21)
In early 1960, CIA Director Allen Dulles and Bissell were worried about a new ballistic missile launch site in northern Urals and wanted to send some U-2 flights to check this out. Eisenhower was reluctant to authorize the flights in view of upcoming summit in Paris in June 1960. He finally agreed and on April 09, 1960, a U-2 took off from Peshawar for a Soviet over flight. The plane flew over Tayurtam launching site, nuclear testing site of Semipalatinsk and air defense missile site near Saryshagan. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was in Crimea and when informed about the U-2 flight was furious and threatened that if the next intruder was not shot down, he would severely punish several generals. (22) Soviet leadership appointed a commission after this incident to investigate why Soviet air defense systems were not able to target these aircrafts. Colonel Alexander Orlov then serving on the staff of Air Defense Forces was member of this commission. According to Orlov, many shortcomings were discovered and rectified. (23) In Washington, Dulles and Bissell asked for another mission as photos of suspected long range missile site near Plesetsk were not good. (24) Soviet defense had also progressed during these years. In early 1960, Soviets had inducted P-30 radar system that could detect aircraft at high altitudes, SU-9 Fish pot high altitude interceptor aircraft and S-75 and SA-2 Guideline missile system capable of reaching a target at approximately 80’000 feet. (25)
The Francis Gary Powers fame U-2 flight that was shot down over Soviet Union on May 01, 1960 originated from Peshawar. Powers arrived by a C-130 plane along with some ground crew members in Peshawar on April 27. U-2 was flown by stand by pilot from Incirlik base in Turkey, however it had to return on April 27 and 28 due to inclement weather over Soviet Union. (26) Planned mission was a long flight over Soviet Union covering a distance of about 3800 miles and landing at Bodo, Norway. Flight path after take off from Peshawar was to fly over Afghanistan then over Dushanbe proceeding to Tayurtam cosmodrome. From there plane was to fly over Chelyabinsk and then over the industrial hub of Sverdlovsk. Soviet main atomic research site was located near Sverdlovsk. The plane was to go over Kirov then to Plesetsk which was a base for the new SS-6 intercontinental ballistic missiles. (27) U-2 was to fly over Archangel then White Sea and finally making a turn around Barents Sea and land at Bodo in Norway. Soviet radar system was tracking the plane the moment it entered Soviet air space. According to Khrushchev, he got a phone call from Minister of Defense Marshal Malinovsky at five o’clock in the morning when U-2 entered Soviet airspace from Afghanistan. (28) A Soviet SU-9 Fish pot high altitude interceptor took off from Sverdlovsk air field and was able to reach the desirable altitude but didn’t see the target. (29) Soviet Air Defence commander Marshal Sergei Biryuzov along with deputy chief of operations for Air Defense Command Colonel Georgi Mikhailov from their command center informed Khrushchev that ‘there is no rocket site ready until it gets to Sverdlovsk. At Sverdlovsk, we can try our luck’. This U-2 was shot down near Sverdlovsk when a SA-2 (Soviet name for this was C-75) surface to air missile burst near its tail. (30)
Washington had a general agreement with all host governments including Pakistan that in case of an incident United States would declare that it was flying U-2 without the permission of host government. Hugh Cumming was head of State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and was chief liaison with CIA. When news of U-2 crash in Soviet Union was confirmed, a prepared cover story written several years ago was discussed at the meeting. This story stated that a NASA U-2 weather plane flying from Turkey had accidentally over flown Pakistan without permission after the pilot reported mechanical problems by radio. There was debate about mentioning of Pakistan. Cumming insisted that Pakistan’s name should be deleted from the cover story. The problem was that by removing the Pakistan name, they had to come up with a new cover flight plan. Technicians using their tools drew a new triangular flight plan for the new cover story. (31) The reason for removing Pakistan’s name from the story was the impression in Washington that Pakistan might not be able to take the heat from the Soviet Union compared to Turkey.
President Ayub Khan was in London when London CIA station chief gave him the news of downing of U-2. Pakistan’s former Foreign Secretary Mohammad Ikramullah who was accompanying Ayub issued the statement that his country had no information that the U-2 had stopped off in Peshawar. (32) Ayub Khan told reporters that ‘The Americans are our friends. These planes come and visit our country. How do we know where they go after they leave our country?’ (33) On May 07, 1960, Khrushchev addressed the meeting of the Supreme Soviet. Angry Khrushchev thundered, “from the lofty rostrum of the Supreme Soviet, we warn those countries that make their territory available for launching planes with anti-Soviet intentions: Do not play with fire, gentlemen! The governments of Turkey, Pakistan and Norway must be clearly aware that they are accomplices in this flight … If these governments did not know – and I allow in this case they were not informed – they should have known what the American military was doing in their territory against the Soviet Union”. (34) Two days later, Khrushchev confronted Pakistani ambassador Salman Ali at Czechoslovakia embassy reception and warned that ‘Peshawar had been marked on a map and pinpointed by Soviet rockets’. (35) On May 13, Soviet foreign minister formally summoned Pakistani envoy along with his counterparts from Turkey and Norway and ‘threatened military attack in revenge for their complicity in the U-2 flights’. (36)
In 1967, Ayub Khan in his memoirs noted that ‘in the U-2 incident we were clearly at fault, but the whole thing had been as much of a shock to us as it was to the Soviet Union’. (37) This statement is only half true as Ayub Khan was fully aware of the nature of the project from the beginning and what he admitted in 1967 was well in line with the secret agreement between Pakistan and United States that in case of downing in hostile territory, United States will state that they have been flying U-2 without Pakistan government’s knowledge. No further over flights over Soviet Union were carried out by U-2 after the May 01, 1960 incident. In reference to the downing of U-2, Ayub Khan in his diary wrote ‘Gary Cooper’ confusing Francis Gary Powers name with then famous Hollywood actor Gary Cooper. (38) Another interesting fact is that Francis Gary Powers mission was codenamed ‘Operation Grand Slam’. In 1965, Pakistan also gave the codename ‘Operation Grand Slam’ to its offensive in Kashmir. Both missions didn’t live up to their illustrious titles.
TABLE: 1 U-2 Over flights from Pakistan. * Flights No 6 and 9 originating from Peshawar landed at Zahedan in Iran. The longest U-2 over flight covering 4’200 miles originating from Cubi point base in Philippines landed at Dhaka on May 15, 1959. (39)
RB-57 was a modified version of B-57 for reconnaissance. In 1959, Pakistan received B-57 bombers from United States. These planes were from 345th Tactical Bomber Wing of USAF based at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. This wing was deactivated in June 1959 and bombers given to Pakistan. (40) After shooting down of U-2 over Soviet Union in 1960, U-2 over flights were discontinued. Various models of RB-57 were developed for high altitude reconnaissance. RB-57B had a ceiling of 65’000 feet and RB-57 F had a ceiling of 80’0000 feet. United States provided two RB-57 B models to Pakistan in early 1960s. These planes were optimized for PHOTOINT and ELINT. In 1965, two state of the art RB-57 Fs (nick named droopy due to their enormous wing span of 200 feet) were also provided to Pakistan. The droopy was exclusively an electronic intelligence gathering and photo reconnaissance platform that could cruise at altitudes up to 80,000 feet above sea level and thus stay well beyond the then air defense capability if flying at maximum heights. RB-57F was used for PHOTOINT through a special high altitude cameras as well as equipment for ELINT and SIGINT. In view of curtailment of over flights over hostile territories in the aftermath of the May 1960 shooting down of U-2 over Soviet Union, new equipment was developed. State of the art side looking camera installed on RB-57 could take detailed pictures from nearly sixty miles away allowing the planes to fly over international waters as well as inside the host country airspace.
Four RB-57s were part of then classified No 24 Intelligence Squadron of PAF based in Peshawar. (41) Two were RB-57 Fs for high altitude reconnaissance and two were RB-57 Bs used for electronic intelligence gathering (ELINT) and signal interception. These planes were provided to Pakistan with an understanding that they will be used for surveillance against Soviet Union and possibly China. Two British Royal Air Force pilots trained in Texas were associated with some of the RB-57 missions originating from Pakistan. PAF pilots took over RB-57 missions and the names of at least two pilots are known; Squadron Leader Muhammad Iqbal and Squadron Leader Rashid Mir.
This author has not been able to confirm that PAF pilots were involved in over flight missions over Soviet Union. PAF pilots flew RB-57s over Pakistan’s northern areas which border Afghanistan where a narrow strip of Wakhan separates Pakistan from Soviet Union. Pakistan’s northern areas also share border with China. ELINT, SIGINT and TELINT equipment was probably used to obtain information from the bordering areas of Soviet Union and China without directly flying over the territory. U.S. technical staff installed the surveillance equipment prior to the flight and removed it after the mission (42) Initially, Pakistani crew was not briefed about the missions and simply given the route of their flight. One navigator protested and demanded that they be briefed about the missions and after this protest Pakistani pilots were briefed about the missions. (43) Commander of 215 Intel Analysis Squadron, a Wing Commander rank Pakistan Air Force officer coordinated with Americans. American technicians after deciphering all information from the equipments installed in the RB-57s would share some information with Pakistani liaison officers. Most likely this information was related to India. (44)
It is very difficult to confirm whether Pakistani pilots flew over flight missions over Soviet territory as two known pilots associated with RB-57s are not alive. If Pakistan was involved in over flight missions, that would tantamount to ‘recklessness’ on part of Pakistan’s higher decision makers. Pakistan took enormous risk as this act would be considered direct provocation of then super power Soviet Union. The enormity of the risk is highlighted by the fact that after the 1960 shoot down of U-2, Soviet Union had clearly warned Pakistan of dire consequences in case of use of Pakistani territory for such operations.
In 1965 when tensions increased between Pakistan and India, United States wanted to move some of its ‘expensive toys’ out of the hot zone. Pakistan resisted these measures to use these state of the art planes against India. One RB-57 F returned to United States prior to the start of all out war in September 1965. Second RB-57 F was damaged by Indian air defense during a mission on September 15, 1965 but Squadron Leader Rashid Mir landed the damaged plane safely at Peshawar. It was repaired and later returned to United States. One RB-57 B flown by Squadron Leader Muhammad Iqbal was shot down by friendly fire during the war. The lone remaining RB-57 B (tail number 3934) was destroyed during an Indian Air Force air raid on December 05, 1971 at Mauripur base thus ending the RB-57 chapter of Pakistan air force. (45) Details of RB-57 operations in Pakistan are still classified in United States. In Pakistan not many people are alive who were intimately involved with the project and an odd one or two with some detailed knowledge are not willing to talk about it. This makes any detailed and meaningful analysis very difficult.
In 1950s, United States ringed Soviet Union with several listening posts. Ground stations listening to Soviet communications were set up at Samsun and Trabzon in Turkey, Germany, Scotland, Philippines, Crete, Taiwan and Japan. (47) These operations were run by NSA and intelligence arm of United States Air Force then designated United States Air Force Security Service (USAFSS). NSA also provided equipment to be installed in U-2 planes that recorded emissions from Soviet radar, microwave and ground communications. (48) Soviet radar installations communicated with each other through high frequency circuits. These high frequency signals bounce between earth and ionosphere, therefore right equipment can pick these signals thousands of miles away. (49)
In 1958, United States and Pakistani governments started negotiations to set up an American listening post in West Pakistan. In 1959, a ten year lease was signed between Pakistan and United States. United States Air Force Security Service (USAFSS) chose a site near the village of Badaber on the outskirts of Peshawar and the ‘Project Sandbag’ was started. The unit assigned was designated 6937 Communications Group also known as Peshawar Air Station (PAS). (50) The first commander of the unit responsible for setting up the infrastructure was Colonel Ethyl Branham. Badaber base was an electronic surveillance facility primarily run by NSA. No aircraft were involved in this operation. It monitored Soviet air defense systems and tracked the path of the surveillance flights but aircraft were not flown from this facility. They monitored Soviet reaction to reconnaissance flights but were not directly involved with the operations of these flights. The primary mission of Badaber facility was monitoring events at the Tyurtam missile test center and its downrange tracking stations. The facility had remote transmitter and receiver sites for high frequency teletype communications with the US military communications network. (51)
There were Pakistani liaison officers attached to the facility for coordination but they were not allowed in operational areas. When Francis Gary Powers U-2 was shot down, at an unclassified Commanders Call, the Americans stationed at the base were told that the 6937th had no knowledge of the U-2 mission. (52) No Pakistani officer directly participated in any capacity in these operations; however a Wing Commander rank Pakistan Air Force officer coordinated with Americans. Only a handful of high ranking Pakistani military officials including C-in-C of the army and air force chief were taken into confidence. No Pakistani civilians were allowed in the facility. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who was then serving as acting foreign minister on his visit to Peshawar requested to visit the Badaber base. Peshawar deputy commissioner Roedad Khan conveyed this request to American base commander Colonel Thomas C. Hyde. The reply came that Bhutto ‘would be welcome to visit the cafeteria where he would be entertained and served coffee and sandwiches’ and that he would be allowed to visit only the cafeteria and no other part of the base. (53)
Sometimes Pakistani officials exaggerated their contribution to the alliance with United States to extract more concessions especially military hardware. In the fall of 1963, Ayub jotted down talking points in his diary in preparation for his meeting with Secretary of State George Ball. In reference to American facilities on Pakistani soil, he wrote, ‘the facility provided to the Americans to establish a major satellite and rocket launching center in Badaber which exposed Pakistan to the wrath of the Russians’. (54) It is not clear whether Ayub wanted to exaggerate Pakistan contribution as a bargaining tool or was not fully aware of the nature of the project at Badaber. Badaber base was only an electronic listening post and had nothing to do with any satellite reconnaissance and definitely not a rocket launching center. There were no U.S. rockets or missiles based on Pakistani soil. It is not known whether Ayub shared this thought with Ball and if he did it would have left a poor impression of Ayub. However, knowing very well that his bargaining position was strong, Ayub argued that by allowing U.S. facilities to operate, Pakistan was increasing its own exposure to Soviet retaliation. During Eisenhower’s visit to Pakistan in December 1959, this was the main argument used by Ayub to get a squadron of F-104s with Sidewinder missile. (55) In 1964, CIA’s own analysis concluded that ‘The Pakistani President knows that the strongest card he holds is the US communications facilities at Peshawar’. He almost certainly calculates that closing the facilities would bring a drastic reduction in the US military and economic assistance on which Pakistan is so heavily dependent and for which there is no alternative in sight’. (56)
In early 1960s, United States and Pakistan started to drift apart from their alliance in view of increased American support to India in the aftermath of Sino-Indian conflict of 1962. Pakistan got alarmed at these developments and started to repair its relations with Soviet Union. Ayub Khan visited Soviet Union in 1965 and gave Soviet leaders indication that when ten year lease of Badaber base ended in 1969, he would not renew it. He also suggested a quid pro quo between issues of U.S. bases in Pakistan and Soviet Union’s veto on Kashmir resolutions and suggested that ‘the matter could be negotiated and the two sides could come to a reasonable arrangement’. (57) Washington got alarmed and angry by Ayub’s visit to China and Soviet Union and while Ayub was still in Soviet Union Washington announced that Ayub’s upcoming visit to United States in April 1965 was rescheduled due to President Johnson’s busy schedule. Pakistan approached Soviet Union for arms but Soviet leaders were lukewarm to the idea. Ayub was thinking about using increased ties with Soviets as a bargaining chip and wrote in his diary on September 26, 1966, ‘It is in our interest that our relations with the Soviets should gain depth. We can then develop greater leverage with the United States and India’. (58)
Ayub visited Soviet Union again in September 1967 and gave firm commitment to Soviet leaders about his decision not to renew the Badaber lease next year. In 1968 Pakistan informed Washington of its decision about closure of Badaber base at the termination of the lease that pleased Soviets. American ambassador sought an urgent interview with Ayub and conveyed ‘the great disappointment of his government. (59) On April 06, 1968 Pakistan gave notice to United States government that Pakistan will not be renewing the lease and on April 17 Soviet Prime Minister Aleksi Kosygin arrived in Pakistan for wide ranging talks. Soviets agreed to help Pakistan in various projects including atomic power plant, steel mill and radio link between Soviet Union and Pakistan. (60) In 1969, U.S. winded up its operations from Badaber base and officially the operations ended on January 07, 1970 when base was handed over to PAF.
Soviet Union and China were closed societies and it was very hard for American or any other Western intelligence agency to run covert programs on the ground. Both countries were shut off to the outside world and Soviet Union earned the nickname of ‘Iron Curtain’ while China was called ‘Bamboo Curtain’. In 1950s and 60s, United States was supporting Tibetan guerrillas fighting against Chinese control. United States worked with both India and Pakistan to run these covert operations in Tibet (Operation St. Circus). Main operating hub of these operations was from India. Pakistan provided transit facilities to American aircraft and personnel in East Pakistan in support of the rebellion in Tibet. (62) Pakistan concluded a border agreement with China in 1963 and pulled out of the covert operations supporting Tibetans.
U.S. approach towards over flights over mainland China was radically different than its operations against Soviet Union. Foreign pilots were associated with some U-2 surveillance programs such as Operation Diamond Li and several nationalist Chinese pilots were trained and they flew missions over mainland China. Taoyuan base near Taipei was jointly run by 35th Black Cat Squadron of nationalist Chinese pilots and U.S. personnel of Detachment H. In the fall of 1959 first batch of five nationalist Chinese pilots was trained, however first over flight mission over China was carried out in January 1962. (63) Over flights over China continued up to 1974 and during these years many U-2 were shot down by Chinese air defense forces.
U.S. high altitude reconnaissance of Chinese military and nuclear targets was coordinated mainly from Taiwan. Local CIA station Chief Ray Cline coordinated with U-2 operations conducted from Taiwan. From 1961 to 1964, at least four U-2s were shot down over mainland China. (64) Main Chinese targets were missile range in Kansu province and nuclear test site at Lop Nur. Neither Pakistan nor United States have acknowledged that any surveillance activity against China was conducted from Pakistan. A former Director General of Inter Services Intelligence (DG ISI) Lieutenant General Javed Nasir disclosed in 1998 that in 1960s CIA painted Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) planes with special chemicals to detect radiation from Chinese nuclear test sites. (65) PIA was one of the few commercial airlines flying regularly to China at that time. No American or Western airline was flying commercial flights to China.
In 1957, United States had started High Altitude Air Sampling Program (HASP) by flying planes over its own nuclear test sites to improve the system of analyzing air samples for nuclear activity (other modalities such as acoustic, seismic and static radiological monitoring systems such as ground filter units were also used). (66) RB-57s based in Pakistan were probably part of Operation Little Cloud which conducted missions of downward air sampling of nuclear debris as Chinese nuclear test site was at Lop Nur in Xinjiang province which is close to Pakistani border and in 1963-64 Chinese were conducting tests at this site. These operations were likely over Pakistani territory and not over flights over Chinese airspace. If this assertion is true, the time frame is probably 1962-64 when U.S.-Pakistan relations were still robust while relations between Pakistan and China were not yet very strong. By mid 1960s, relationships between Pakistan and China have taken a strategic dimension and Pakistan probably stopped cooperation as far China was concerned.
It is not likely that Pakistan would have risked this crucial relationship especially in view of estrangement from U.S. in the context of increased U.S. support to India after Sino-Indian conflict of 1962. This conclusion is based on the fact that on November 10, 1964, U.S. ambassador Walter McConaughy , Chief of CIA directorate of Plans for South Asia James Critchfield and Karachi CIA station chief John Shaffer met with President Ayub Khan in Karachi. China had conducted its nuclear test few weeks earlier. Critchfield asked for a ‘standing permission’ to conduct air sampling missions over Pakistan territory against China but Ayub refused stating that ‘we can not afford to make anymore enemies’. (67) From Pakistani side, Director General of Inter Services Intelligence (DGISI) Brigadier Riaz Hussain and Director General of Foreign Office Salman Ali were also present at this meeting. Who could know the perils of such adventures better than Salman Ali? Ali was Pakistan’s envoy to Moscow in 1960 when Khrushchev pulled him aside at a diplomatic reception and threatened Pakistan with dire consequences in the aftermath of shooting down of Francis Gary Powers U-2.
Pakistan pursued its own national interest of building solid relations with China. In early 1965, Ayub Khan was given a warm welcome in China and Prime Minister Zhou Enlai conducted him to different cities. President Johnson expressed his displeasure by sending a note to Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington that ‘I don’t relish the sight of my friend Ayub breaking bread with my enemies’. (68) Johnson had earlier abruptly cancelled Ayub’s upcoming visit to Washington in April 1965 on the issue of Ayub’s visit to China. Ayub met President Johnson in Washington in December 1965 and Johnson bluntly told Ayub that future Pakistan-U.S. relations will depend to a great extent on Pakistan’s willingness to curtail its ties with China. Later, Johnson sent a letter to Ayub stating that ‘the old slate had been wiped clean in South Asia’. (69)
Pakistan disappointed by its relations with United States expanded its relations with China and pursued its own interests. By mid 1960s, Pakistan and United States were drifting apart mainly on the issue of China. U.S. with its involvement in Vietnam saw China as a serious immediate threat and Washington’s ambassador to Pakistan Walter P. Mc Conaughy was the leading expert on Chinese affairs. He had served as director of China affairs at State Department, served as ambassador to Burma and Korea and briefly served as assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern Affairs prior to his appointment to Pakistan. (70) India-Pakistan war of 1965 finally put a stop to a decade long defense relations between United States and Pakistan. Pakistan gradually drifted away from American sphere of influence and moved more closely towards China in its quest for security against India. Pakistan tried to use its relations with Russia and China as a bargaining chip and in November 1966, Ayub in his meeting U.S. ambassador Eugene Murphy Locke told him that Pakistan will get some weapons from China and if U.S. didn’t provide the military aid, Pakistan will approach Soviet Union for weapons. (71) Pakistan was not successful in its efforts and relations between Pakistan and United States remained low key as both parties were disappointed.
Handshake in the Shadows
The opinions are quite divergent about the contribution of intelligence operations conducted form Pakistani soil. Most Pakistanis consider them highly valuable to U.S. national security while Americans downplay its significance in the global context. High altitude reconnaissance operating from Turkey and Pakistan provided crucial information about Soviet military and nuclear facilities. Vital information about Soviet military capabilities uncovered by these flights resulted in refutation of ‘bomber gap’ and ‘missile gap’. In addition, Soviet nuclear test sites at Novaya Zemlya and Semipalatinsk, weapons plant near Alma Ata and defensive missile site at Saryshagan were discovered by U-2 flights. (74) Tayurtam launch site was accidentally discovered when a U-2 pilot flying over Soviet Turkistan deviated from his designated course to look at an interesting site. Later, photo interpreters built the whole model of Tayurtam site. (75) U-2 flights not only obtained photographs but also carried intercept equipment capturing signals of Soviet radar systems. (76) This provided a layout of Soviet air defense systems to U.S. military planners. Table 2 gives the details of Soviet sites monitored through intelligence operations run from Pakistan. (77) Eisenhower’s dilemma was that he could not share secret information provided by U-2 over flights with Congress. However, armed with the information provided by U-2 ‘enabled him to withstand formidable pressure from the military-industrial complex and its supporters on the Hill for massive increases in arms expenditure’. (78)
Pakistan was worried about the potential risks it was taking by allowing U.S. intelligence gathering missions from its soil. In CIA’s Deputy Director of Intelligence Robert Amory’s words ‘The Pakistanis were always worrywarts’. (79) Field Marshal Ayub Khan was directly involved in negotiations and he rightly felt that he had got a good deal for Pakistan and its armed forces by hard bargaining with Washington in return for cooperation with U.S. on intelligence against Soviet Union. Ayub stressed this point in his meeting with Secretary of State George Ball in September 1963 stating that, ‘You have been good friends and helped us in many ways, but we too have been very good friends and in doing so incurred lots of risks and odium’. (80) One thing that Ayub could not comprehend at that time was that Washington clearly knew that high altitude reconnaissance flights as well as ground installations were only a transient stage as with satellite technology (which Washington was pursuing with full speed) the whole ball game will change. Washington was clearly expecting that U-2 flights will end in the next few years. On part of Ayub, ‘if permission to fly the U-2 from Pakistan was part of the quid pro quo, then his power to demand renewed aid would be diminished’. (81)
Fathers of U-2 were very clear from the beginning about the narrow window of opportunity before Soviets caught up with their efforts. Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell told Eisenhower that ‘with advances in Soviet fighter planes and ground-to-air missiles, the U-2 would probably be able to fly safely over Russia for only two to three years’. (82) Eisenhower was also clear in his mind and had told the CIA that ‘U-2 flights should be held to a minimum pending the viability of this new equipment’. (83) This ‘new equipment’ was satellite technology. It was calculated that once United States had acquired satellite reconnaissance capability, then the strategic value of overseas bases would be diminished. Thus Pakistan’s cooperation was crucial for only three to four years. (84) During all these parleys, Soviet Union was not sitting idly and was trying to keep itself informed of Pakistan’s foreign policy by recruiting agents in Pakistan’s foreign ministry and diplomatic corps. (85)
Soviet Union fully aware of the U.S. intelligence operations conducted from Pakistan was not sitting passively. It was working overtime to get as much information as possible. Soviet Union was able to get some crucial information by recruiting some highly placed agents in Pakistan. Some of these high profile agents included senior officers of ministry of foreign affairs including an ambassador (this helped Soviet to decipher large part of Pakistan’s diplomatic correspondence) and an officer at military’s communication center at Rawalpindi. (86)
In the aftermath of 1965 war, when United States stopped all parts and supplies to Pakistan, Pakistani leadership was enraged. Soviet Union’s secret service KGB chipped in to widen the gulf between Pakistan and United States. It passed forged documents to Pakistan government which showed that U.S. ambassador Walter McConaughy was plotting to overthrow Ayub Khan (Operation REBUS). In July 1966, Operation SPIDER was another attempt by KGB to convince Ayub Khan that United States was using West German press agency Tarantel to discredit him due to his close relations with China. (87)
Several factors contributed towards Pakistan’s drift from close relations with United States in 1960s. Poor handling of the crisis in the aftermath of shooting down of U-2 over Soviet Union created serious doubts in Pakistan’s mind about American competence to handle a crisis. Economic assistance to India and in the aftermath of Sino-Indian war of 1962 increased military assistance alarmed Pakistan. The final blow to U.S.-Pakistan relations was Indo-Pakistan war of 1965 when United States stopped all military supplies that affected Pakistan much more than India. Pakistan interpreted this act as an outright betrayal and increased its efforts to repair its relations with Soviet Union and upgrade its relations with China.
Table: 2 Soviet sites for reconnaissance flight originating from Pakistan and Turkey. *Soviets used Kapustin Yar site for firing the missiles and Saryshagan site to test ABM to intercept them.
Defense relations and intelligence cooperation between United States and Pakistan during 1950s and 60s had benefits and side effects for both countries. It evolved over a decade and by 1964, although there was significant strain on the relations both parties saw benefit of continuation of the relationship though at a much smaller scale. ‘Pakistan still required U.S. aid for critical development and defense priorities; and the United States still valued the intelligence-collection facilities that Pakistan permitted it to operate’. (90) Despite many shortcomings and significant heartburn on both sides, there were some benefits to both sides. United States obtained significant strategic intelligence against Soviet Union from its operations in Pakistan. This contributed towards huge savings to United States exchequer as ‘bomber gap’ and ‘missile gap’ theories were proven wrong through high altitude reconnaissance. President Eisenhower in possession of this information was able to hold defense spending down despite strong pressures from military and Congress. Pakistan on its parts revolutionized its armed forces in less than a decade from large scale defense assistance from United States. All three services jumped from World War II era to modern age of warfare with state of the art war equipment and first rate training to use equipment. In many areas such as armor, artillery, Special Forces and air force, Pakistani armed forces became one of the best in the world. This could not have been achieved through indigenous resources in such a short period of time.
‘The ambivalence, misunderstandings, tensions, and unfulfilled expectations’ affected Pakistan and United States relations during this time period. (91) Both parties were disappointed in their relationship in 1950s and 60s. United States expected that by training and equipping Pakistan’s armed forces, it had earned the right that Pakistan should completely align its interests with United States foreign policy including helping in quarantine of China. Washington expected that Pakistan will earn the enmity of three of its powerful neighbors; India, Soviet Union and China in return for assistance. In addition, United States expected that all the firepower provided to Pakistan was solely to be used against communists and not against India. These objectives were quite unrealistic. It was very clear from as early as 1947 that Pakistan saw its main security threat from India and all its efforts to modernize its armed forces were with the sole objective of confronting India. It was naïve on part of Washington to expect that Pakistan would embark on a policy that would put it in direct conflict with both Soviet Union and China. Similarly, the assumption that in case of an all out war with India, Pakistan will keep its new shiny armor in depots defies any logic.
Pakistan on the other hand also had unrealistic objectives. Privately, Pakistan’s leaders starting from the nation’s founding father consistently presented themselves as bulwark against communism ignoring ground realties and their own limitations. They used this line to extract maximum defense and economic aid from United States. They expected that Washington would equip and train and modernize all of their three services without any questions asked. They signed secret agreements that clearly stipulated that the objective of military assistance was against communism but they had no intention of fulfilling the obligations. They thought that they could indulge in adventures against India and expected that Washington would not only keep the weapon pipeline open but give them diplomatic cover in international arena. This showed complete lack of understanding of global interests of United States on part of Pakistan’s higher decision makers. In McMahon’s words, it is not clear whether Pakistan’s ‘expectations were a product of wishful thinking, cultural misperceptions, preoccupation with the enormity of Pakistan’s internal and security needs, a simple blindness to reality, or a combination of all those factors’. (92) Pakistan’s close defense alliance with United States was one of the factors that pushed Soviet Union towards close relations with Pakistan’s archrival India as well as Afghanistan; a reality never completely comprehended by Pakistan.
Fifty years down the line and Pakistan and United States are again engaged in wide ranging defense and intelligence operations in the context of fight against extremism. One lesson that can be learned from the past such endeavourers is that each party should be realistic in its objectives as well as fully comprehend its own as well as other party’s limitations. Exaggerated expectations will invariably result in huge disappointments on both sides. Every one understands that some intelligence operations need to be classified, however overall relations between the two countries and general defense relations should be discussed at different forums so that a more practical and somewhat transparent relation focusing on common interests is established. One simple fact which is missing in most discussions is that no policy can be pursued without minimum consensus from the population. Conducting all transactions in dark simply adds more suspicion and confusion and dividends are usually marginal in the long run.
One rarely has the luxury in diplomacy of being able to choose a course of action which is all on the ‘credit’ side of the ledger and entails no ‘debits’ at all.