THE COLD WAR: Nikita & the RB-47

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Nikita & the RB-47

Once the nations of the world were fortresses lying snugly behind their three-mile limits, a tradition established 250 years ago, when three miles was the span of a cannon's shot. In the modern world of atoms, rockets, and planes swifter than sound, the wall of the fortress is invisible. The wall is electronic—an outthrust barrier of radars, direction-seeking radios and — aiming instruments. For both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, it has become vital to spot and plot the ever-shifting shadows and strengths of the adversary's invisible frontier.

Amid deepest secrecy, U.S. and Allied planes and ships have long prowled the air and sea approaches to the Soviet fortress. Such so-called "ferret" fights probe the Russian radar fences in the Pacific, in the Middle East and in the Arctic north. The Russians, for their part, send a weekly fight of radar-snooping planes along Japan's northeast coasts with such unfailing regularity that it is known as the "Tokyo Express." Three months ago, the Soviet trawler Vega made a much-photographed nuisance of herself oT the U.S. Atlantic Coast—taking bearings on U.S. coastal radars, barging boldly into the midst of fleet and Air Force maneuvers. On one occasion, in a practice session off Long Island, the U.S. nuclear sub George Washington fired a dummy Polaris, and a Navy tug churned over to recover the missile. Before it got there, the Vega steamed over the horizon, headed straight for the floating missile.

Last Call. But the ferret flight that left from the U.S. base in the English town of Brize Norton on July 1 was destined to become a brief but acrimonious international incident. The plane was an RB-47, the reconnaissance version of the Air Force's workhorse medium jet bomber. It was scheduled to fly the routine ferret run off the Soviet Arctic coast, a triangular course (see map) around the Barents Sea plotted to keep the ferret plane at least 75 miles away from Soviet territory. At 3:03 p.m., upon reaching the appointed spot about 300 miles northeast of Norway's North Cape, the RB-47 signaled the start of its triangular patrol. It was the ferret's last call. After waiting overnight, the U.S. Air Force announced that the plane was missing and organized a search.

The searchers were wasting their time. Somewhere along the run, a Soviet fighter had intercepted the plane and shot it down. For the Russians, the kill presented no problem. It was broad daylight. The weather was clear. The plane presumably was flying at its assigned altitude of 12,000 ft., within easy reach of the most obsolete fighter, and on the course other U.S. ferret planes had regularly flown before. But the Russians must have planned carefully. U.S. monitors listening in on Soviet command channels heard no messages transmitted between Russian bases and the plane.

With Khrushchev away touring Austria, First Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan and his lieutenants in the Kremlin dithered for ten days over what to do about the downed RB-47-For reasons best known to themselves, they said nothing. In fact, they sent a cruiser out to play a grisly farce of helping the U.S. and Norwegian air forces look for the survivors.

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