Project RAND reports, 1951-1956

In what seems to have become a recurring pattern, while researching another post, I fell again down a rabbit hole that yielded some interesting documents. This time, a series of Project RAND reports from 1951 to 1956.

What is nowadays known as RAND Corporation started in 1945 as Project RAND under the Douglas Aircraft Company, becoming a separate non-profit organization in 1948. The initial purpose of Project RAND (shortened from research and development) was to connect the military with outside expertise in science and engineering, and some of their early work focused on the feasibility of satellites in space, branching out to other topical problems of the military and later expanding to non-military research. (More on RAND’s history on their site.)

On RAND’s website, there’s an index of several hundred Research Memoranda which were published between 1948 and 1973. However, the ten reports that available through the CIA archive are not listed there, probably due to their original classification. I’ll cover some of them in more detail here.

One of the memos, “Revised Study of Pioneer Reconnaissance by Ballons” from 1952 is quite interesting as it relates closely to the history of US aerial reconnaissance efforts. In January 1956, US Air Force literally unleashed Project GENETRIX, where 516 high-altitude balloons were used with the intention of acquiring aerial photographs of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China. According to CIA’s own overhead reconnaissance history, the project had its origins in a 1951 RAND study, and the 1952 one in the archive appears to be an update on the original.


RAND reconnaissance balloon study; coverage estimates



RAND recon balloon study; hypothetical balloon recovery network at end of mission


The results of project GENETRIX were not quite up to the hopes of the Air Force. In the end, only 46 payloads out of 516 were recovered, and of the recovered ones 34 yielded photographs of any intelligence value. The balloons provoked an international incident with the USSR and other Eastern European countries. Nonetheless, the recovered imagery was considered valuable, if not worth the cost. The GENETRIX imagery was referred to still in 1965 imagery interpretation reports on Soviet order of battle.

Another one of the RAND memos, “Pre-D-Day Electronic Reconnaissance of the Soviet Union and Satellite Nations” warrants a mention, if only for the juicy title. The report concerns ELINT, and contains much discussion on what can be achieved through ELINT, also when considering peripheral vs. overflight missions.


RAND’s electronic recon of the Soviet Union report; partial table of contents


The report also includes interesting discussion on intelligence analysis, especially from the historical perspective as it was the early days for the US intelligence community, and Sherman Kent created “Studies in Intelligence” only two years later. The impact of classification and compartmentalization are discussed as possible constraints in analysis, as the authors make the point that ELINT alone necessarily yield the full picture, but need to be combined with intelligence from other sources for example to yield useful order of battle intelligence.

Next, a 1955 report titled “Some Aspects of Technical Intelligence Problems in USAF” covers TECHINT issues in the Soviet Union. The report points out that at that time, most of the intelligence on Soviet aircraft was collected from Moscow airshows. Thus, part of the report is dedicated to discussion on how the acquisition of such photos could be improved, so that they are more usable for TECHINT analysis. Some of the discussion is on use of embassy facilities for the purpose of photography.


RAND report on USAF TECHINT problems; discussion on use of embassy facilities

Another section of the report discusses the problem of acquiring long-range photos of Russian cargo ships from St. Lawrence Island, a west Alaskan island in the Bering Sea. This section also describes Operation FEZ, an effort where Turkish mountains were used to keep an eye on Batumi and Yerevan.


RAND report on USAF TECHINT problems; description of Operation FEZ


Of interest to the Swedish readers might be the fact that Ragnar Thorén (1895-1992) is mentioned in the report, as one of the authors had discussed long-range photography with him. Thorén served in Swedish military intelligence, as a military attaché to Helsinki in 1942-1945, developed photography techniques and was a noted expert in the Arctic.

Finally, I’ll mentioned a pair of reports from 1955, “Case Studies of Actual and Alleged Overflights, 1930-1953” and it’s Top Secret supplement. The main report, classified Secret, contains event descriptions of actual or alleged overflights of another country’s territory and Soviet reactions to them; events in the TS supplement had never been made public.


Cold War wasn’t so cold – discussion on motives why Soviets shot down two Swedish planes in June 1952

Some of the events in the Top Secret supplement can be checked from another source: a 1993 article that appeared in NSA’s Cryptologic Quarterly about Soviet shootdowns of U.S. SIGINT aircraft. For example, an April 8th, 1950 shootdown of a U.S. NAVY PB4Y-2 Privateer over the Baltic Sea is described in both, while the NSA journal’s report contains additional details of the event. Another event covered in both is the presumed shootdown of an RB-29 over the Sea of Japan on June 13th, 1952.


1955 RAND report and 1993 NSA journal article side-by-side


That was a brief look at some of the Project RAND documents available in the CIA archive. Below is a list of all of them I’ve found so far.

R-218 Inquiry into the Feasibility of Weather Reconnaissance from a Satellite Vehicle Apr 1951
Research Memo RM-979/TS-614 Revised Study of Pioneer Reconnaissance by Balloons Nov 1952
Research Memo RM-1050 Attitude Sensing and Control for a Satellite Vehicle Jan 1953
Research Memo RM-1135 Pre-D-Day Electronic Reconnaissance of the Soviet Union and Satellite Nations Sep 1953
Research Memo RM-1164/TS-882 Expected Cost and Payoff of a High Intensity Balloon Pioneer Reconnaissance Campaign over the USSR Dec 1953
Special Memo No. 27 Some Aspects of Technical Intelligence Problems in USAF Jan 1955
Research Memo RM-1349 Case Studies of Actual and Alleged Overflights, 1930-1953 Aug 1955
Research Memo RM-1349(S) Case Studies of Actual and Alleged Overflights, 1930-1953 — Supplement Aug 1955
Research Memo RM-1555 The Feed Back Simulation Pictures Taken at RCA Sep 1955
Research Memo RM-1811 Physical Recovery of Satellite Payloads – A Prelimitary Investigation Jun 1956


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