Seoul, South Korea

When a Chinese language high-altitude balloon suspected of spying was noticed over the US lately, the US Air Power responded by sending up a high-flying espionage asset of its personal: the U-2 reconnaissance jet.

It was the Chilly-Battle period spy aircraft that took the high-resolution pictures – to not point out its pilot’s selfie – that reportedly satisfied Washington the Chinese language balloon was gathering intelligence and never, as Beijing continues to insist, learning the climate.

In doing so, the aircraft performed a key function in an occasion that despatched tensions between the world’s two largest economies hovering, and shone a global highlight on the strategies the 2 governments use to maintain tabs on one another.

Till now, a lot of the media’s focus has been on the balloon – particularly, how a vessel popularly seen as a relic of a bygone period of espionage might presumably stay related within the trendy spy’s playbook. But to many army historians, it’s the involvement of that different image of a bygone time, the U-2, that’s much more telling.

The U-2 has an extended and storied historical past in relation to espionage battles between the US and China. Within the Nineteen Sixties and Seventies, at the least 5 of them had been shot down whereas on surveillance missions over China.

These losses haven’t been as extensively reported as could be anticipated – and for good purpose. The Central Intelligence Company (CIA), which was liable for all of America’s U-2s on the time the planes had been shot down, has by no means formally defined what they had been doing there.

Including to the thriller was that the planes had been being flown not by US pilots nor below a US flag, however by pilots from Taiwan who, in a placing parallel to in the present day’s balloon saga, claimed to be concerned in a climate analysis initiative.

A US Air Force pilot looks down at the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon from the cockpit of his U-2 spy plane on February 3, 2023.

That the CIA could be tight-lipped over what these American-built spy planes had been doing is hardly shocking.

However the company’s continued silence greater than 50 years later – it didn’t reply to a CNN request for touch upon this text – speaks volumes about simply how delicate the problem was each on the time and stays in the present day.

The US authorities has a common rule of 25 years for computerized declassification of delicate materials. Nevertheless, one in every of its often-cited causes for ignoring this rule is in these circumstances the place revealing the knowledge would “trigger critical hurt to relations between the US and a international authorities, or to ongoing diplomatic actions of the US.”

Modern accounts of what the planes had been doing – by the Taiwan pilots who had been shot down, retired US Air Power officers and army historians amongst them – go away little doubt as to why it might have induced a stir.

The planes – in accordance with accounts by the pilots in a Taiwan-made documentary movie and histories revealed on US authorities web sites – had been transferred to Taiwan as a part of a top-secret mission to listen in on Communist China’s rising army capabilities, together with its nascent nuclear program, which was receiving assist from the Soviet Union.

The newly developed U-2, nicknamed the Dragon Girl, appeared to supply the proper vessel. The US had already used it to spy on the Soviet’s home nuclear program as its high-altitude capabilities – it was designed within the Fifties to succeed in “a staggering and unprecedented altitude of 70,000 ft,” within the phrases of its developer Lockheed – put it out of the vary of antiaircraft missiles.

Or so the US had thought. In 1960, the Soviets shot down a CIA-operated U-2 and put its pilot Gary Powers on trial. Washington was pressured to desert its cowl story (that Powers had been on a climate reconnaissance mission and had drifted into Soviet airspace after blacking out from oxygen depletion), admit the spy aircraft program, and barter for Powers to be returned in a prisoner swap.

“Since America didn’t need to have its personal pilots shot down in a U-2 the way in which Gary Powers had been over the Soviet Union in 1960, which induced a serious diplomatic incident, they turned to Taiwan, and Taiwan was all too prepared to permit its pilots to be educated and to do an extended sequence of overflights over mainland China,” Chris Pocock, creator of “50 Years of the U-2,” defined within the 2018 documentary movie “Misplaced Black Cats thirty fifth Squadron.”

A mobile chase car pursues a U-2 Dragon Lady as it prepares to land at Beale Air Force Base in California in June 2015.

Just like the U-2, Taiwan – often known as the Republic of China (ROC) – appeared an ideal alternative for the mission. The self-governing island to the east of the Chinese language mainland was at odds with the Communist management in Beijing – because it stays in the present day – and at the moment in historical past had a mutual protection treaty with Washington.

That treaty has lengthy since lapsed, however Taiwan stays some extent of main tensions between China and the US, with Chinese language chief Xi Jinping vowing to convey it below the Communist Get together’s management and Washington nonetheless obligated to offer it with the means to defend itself.

As we speak, the US sells F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan as a part of that obligation. Within the Nineteen Sixties, Taiwan acquired the US-made U-2s.

The island’s army arrange a squadron that may formally be often called the “Climate Reconnaissance and Analysis Part.”

However its members – pilots from Taiwan who had been educated within the US to fly U-2s – knew it by a distinct title: the “Black Cats.”

The creator Pocock and Gary Powers Jr., the son of the pilot shot down by the Soviets and the co-founder of the Chilly Battle Museum in Washington, DC, defined the pondering behind the squadron and its mission within the 2018 documentary movie.

The opposite CIA unit in Taiwan

  • Coinciding with the Black Cat Squadron, the Black Bat Squadron was shaped below the cooperation of the Central Intelligence Company and Taiwan’s air pressure, in accordance with a Taiwan Protection Ministry web site.
  • Whereas the Black Cats had been in control of high-altitude reconnaissance missions, the Black Bats performed low-altitude reconnaissance and digital intelligence gathering missions over mainland China from Could 1956. It additionally operated in Vietnam in tandem with the US throughout the Vietnam Battle.
  • Between 1952 to 1972, the Black Bats misplaced 15 plane and 148 lives, in accordance with the web site.
  • “The Black Cats program was carried out as a result of the American authorities wanted to seek out out info over mainland China – what had been their strengths and weaknesses, the place had been their army installations situated, the place had been their submarine bases, what sort of plane had been they growing,” mentioned Powers Jr.

    Lloyd Leavitt, a retired US Air Power lieutenant common, described the mission as “a joint intelligence operation by the US and the Republic of China.”

    “American U-2s had been painted with ROC insignia, ROC pilots had been below the command of a ROC (Air Power) colonel, overflight missions had been deliberate by Washington, and each nations had been recipients of the intelligence gathered over the mainland,” Leavitt wrote in a 2010 private historical past of the Chilly Battle revealed by the Air Power Analysis Institute in Alabama.

    One of many first males to fly the U-2 for Taiwan was Mike Hua, who was there when the primary of the planes arrived at Taoyuan Air Base in Taiwan in early 1961.

    “The quilt story was that the ROC (air pressure) had bought the plane, that bore the (Taiwanese) nationwide insignia. … To keep away from being confused with different air pressure organizations stationed in Taoyuan, the part grew to become the thirty fifth Squadron with the Black Cat as its insignia,” Hua wrote in a 2002 historical past of the unit for the journal Air Power Historic Basis.

    On the Taiwan airbase, Individuals labored with the Taiwan pilots, serving to to take care of the plane and course of the knowledge. They had been know as Detachment H, in accordance with Hua.

    “All US personnel had been ostensibly staff of the Lockheed Plane Firm,” Hua wrote.

    The ROC air pressure and US representatives inked an settlement on the operation, giving it the code title “Razor,” Hua wrote.

    He described the intelligence gained by the flights as “super” and mentioned it was shared between Taipei and Washington.

    “The missions coated the huge inside of the Chinese language mainland, the place virtually no aerial pictures had ever been taken,” he wrote. “Every mission introduced again an aerial photographic map of roughly 100 miles broad by 2,000 miles lengthy, which revealed not solely the exact location of a goal, but in addition the actions on the bottom.”

    Different sensors on the spy planes gathered info on Chinese language radar capabilities and extra, he mentioned.

    Between January 1962 and Could 1974, in accordance with a historical past on Taiwan’s Protection Ministry’s web site, the Black Cats flew 220 reconnaissance missions overlaying “greater than 10 million sq. kilometers over 30 provinces within the Chinese language mainland.”

    When requested for additional touch upon the Black Cats, the ministry referred CNN to the revealed supplies.

    “The concept was that black cats exit at evening, and the U-2 would normally launch within the darkness. Their cameras had been the eyes, and it was very stealthy, quiet, and laborious to get. And so combining the 2 tales, they grew to become often called the Black Cats,” the creator Pocock mentioned within the documentary.

    The squadron even had its personal patch, apparently drawn by one in every of its members, Lt. Col. Chen Huai-sheng, and impressed by an area institution frequented by the pilots.

    However the Black Cats, like Powers Sr. two years earlier than, had been about to seek out out their U-2s weren’t impervious to antiaircraft fireplace.

    On September 9, 1962, Chen grew to become the primary U-2 pilot to be shot down by a Folks’s Liberation Military antiaircraft missile. His aircraft went down whereas on a mission over Nanchang, China.

    Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Feb. 5, 2023. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tyler Thompson)

    See photographs displaying US Navy recovering spy balloon from water

    Within the following years, three extra Black Cat U-2 pilots had been killed on missions over China because the PLA discovered the best way to counter the U-2 missions.

    “The mainland Chinese language realized from their radars the place these flights had been going, what their targets had been, and so they started to construct websites for the missiles however transfer them round,” Pocock mentioned.

    “So they’d construct a web site right here, occupy that web site for some time but when they thought the subsequent flight could be going over right here, they’d transfer the missiles. It was a cat-and-mouse recreation, actually a black cat and mouse recreation between the routines from the flights from Taiwan and people air protection troops of the (Chinese language) mainland, understanding the place the subsequent flight would go.”

    In July 1964, Lt. Col. Lee Nan-ping’s U-2 was shot down by a PLA SA-2 missile over Chenghai, China. In line with the Taiwan Protection Ministry he was flying out of a US naval air station within the Philippines and making an attempt to realize info on China’s provide routes to North Vietnam.

    In September 1967, a PLA missile hit the U-2 being flown by Capt. Hwang Rung-pei over Jiaxin, China, and in Could 1969, Maj. Chang Hsieh suffered a “flight management failure” over the Yellow Sea whereas reconnoitering the coast of Hebei province, China. No hint of his U-2 was ever discovered, in accordance with Taiwan’s Protection Ministry.

    A U-2 Dragon Lady, from Beale Air Force Base, lands at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, in 2017.

    Two different Taiwanese U-2 pilots had been shot down however survived, solely to spend years in Communist captivity.

    Maj. Robin Yeh was shot down in November 1963 over Jiujiang, Jiangxi province.

    “The aircraft misplaced management when the explosion of the missile took out a part of the left wing. The aircraft spiraled down. A lot of shrapnel flew into the aircraft and hit each of my legs,” Yeh, who died in 2016, recalled in “The Courageous within the Higher Air: An Oral Historical past of The Black Cat Squadron” revealed by Taiwan’s Protection Ministry.

    He mentioned that following his seize Chinese language medical doctors eliminated 59 items of shrapnel from his legs, however couldn’t take all of it out.

    “It didn’t actually have an effect on my each day life, however throughout winter my legs would harm, which affected my mobility. I suppose this is able to be my lifelong reminiscence,” Yeh mentioned.

    Maj. Jack Chang’s U-2 was hit by a missile over Internal Mongolia in 1965. He, too, suffered dozens of shrapnel accidents and bailed out, touchdown on a snowy panorama.

    “It was darkish on the time, stopping me from looking for assist anyway, so I needed to wrap myself up tightly with the parachute to maintain myself heat … After ten hours when daybreak broke, I noticed a village of yurts afar, so I dragged myself and sought assist there. I collapsed as quickly as I reached a mattress,” he recalled within the oral historical past.

    Neither Yeh nor Chang, who had been assumed killed in motion, would see Taiwan once more for many years. The pilots had been finally launched in 1982 into Hong Kong, which on the time was nonetheless a British colony.

    Nevertheless, the world into which they emerged had modified significantly within the intervening years. The US not had a mutual protection treaty with Taiwan and had formally switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

    Although the Chilly Battle US-Taiwan alliance was not, the CIA introduced the 2 pilots to the US to dwell till they had been lastly allowed to return to Taiwan in 1990.

    Members of the 5th Reconnaissance Squadron

    Certainly, by the point of their launch CIA management of the U-2 program had lengthy since ceased. It had turned the planes over to the US Air Power in 1974, in accordance with a US Air Power historical past.

    Two years later, the Air Power’s 99th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron and its U-2s moved into Osan Air Base in South Korea. Commander Lt. Col. David Younger gave the placement the “Black Cat” moniker.

    As we speak, the unit is named the fifth Reconnaissance Squadron.

    However US U-2s proceed to be concerned in what could be characterised as “cat-and-mouse” actions and their actions proceed to make waves sometimes in China. In 2020, Beijing accused the US of sending a U-2 right into a no-fly zone to “trespass” on live-fire workout routines being performed by China beneath.

    The US Pacific Air Forces confirmed to CNN on the time that the flight had taken place, however mentioned it didn’t violate any guidelines.

    In the meantime, for these concerned within the unique Black Cats, there are few regrets – even for individuals who had been captured.

    Yeh advised the documentary makers he had fond recollections of life at 70,000 ft.

    “We had been actually up within the air. The view we had was additionally completely different; we had the fowl’s eye view. The whole lot we noticed was huge,” he mentioned.

    Chang too felt no bitterness.

    “I like flying,” he mentioned. “I didn’t die, so I’ve no regrets.”

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