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Saleem Akhtar Malik l

The U-2 incident occurred during the Cold War on 1 May 1960, during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower and the premiership of Nikita Khrushchev, when a United States U-2 spy plane was shot down while in Soviet airspace. The aircraft, flown by Central Intelligence Agency pilot Francis Gary Powers, was performing photographic aerial reconnaissance when it was hit by an S-75 Dvina (SA-2 Guideline)surface-to-air missile and crashed near Sverdlovsk. Powers parachuted safely and was captured. The U-2 pilot had taken off from the Badaber air base near Peshawar.Khrushchev said he had drawn a red circle around Peshawar.

Powers was convicted of espionage and sentenced to three years of imprisonment plus seven years of hard labor but would be released two years later on 10 February 1962 during a prisoner exchange for Soviet officer Rudolf Abel.

Initially the United States government tried to cover up the plane’s purpose and mission, but was forced to admit its military nature when the Soviet government came forward with the captured pilot and remains of the U-2 including spying technology that had survived the crash as well as photos of military bases in the Soviet Union taken by the aircraft. Coming roughly two weeks before the scheduled opening of an east–west summit in Paris, the incident was a great embarrassment to the United States and prompted a marked deterioration in its relations with the Soviet Union. Powers was convicted of espionage and sentenced to three years of imprisonment plus seven years of hard labor but would be released two years later on 10 February 1962 during a prisoner exchange for Soviet officer Rudolf Abel.

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The conventional story given to explain the crash of the U-2 and the subsequent capture of Gary Powers is that a surface-to-air missile brought down the plane.

Following World War II, the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union grew increasingly wary. The USSR did not agree to a U.S. ‘Open Skies’ proposal in 1955 and relations continued to deteriorate. The U.S. instituted high altitude reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union because of this aura of mistrust. The U-2 was the plane of choice for the spying missions. The CIA took the lead, keeping the military out of the picture to avoid any possibilities of open conflict. By 1960, the U.S. had flown numerous ‘successful’ missions over and around the U.S.S.R. However, a major incident was about to occur. On May 1, 1960, the U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers was brought down near Sverdlovsk, Soviet Union. This event had a lasting negative impact on U.S. – U.S.S.R. relations. The details surrounding this event are to this day still shrouded in mystery.

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The conventional story given to explain the crash of the U-2 and the subsequent capture of Gary Powers is that a surface-to-air missile brought down the plane. However, the U-2 spy plane was constructed to be unassailable by conventional weapons. The major benefit of these high altitude planes was their ability to stay above the enemy fire. If the plane was flying at its proper height and had been shot down, many question as to how Powers could have survived. It would have been very likely that he would have died in the explosion or from the high altitude ejection. Therefore, many individuals question the validity of this explanation. Several alternative theories have been put forward to explain the downing of Gary Powers spy plane: 1)Gary Powers was flying his plane below the high flying reconnaissance altitude and was hit by anti-aircraft fire. 2)Gary Powers actually landed the plane in the Soviet Union.3)There was a bomb on board the plane.

The Paris Summit between President Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev collapsed in large part because Khrushchev demanded an apology that Eisenhower was unwilling to give.

The newest and probably least probable explanation offered for the downing of the planes comes from the pilot of a Soviet plane involved in the incident. He claims to have been ordered to ram the spy plane. Admittedly there is little evidence to support this claim. However, it further muddies the waters of explanation. Even though the cause of the incident is shrouded in mystery there is little doubt to the short and long term consequences of the event.

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The Paris Summit between President Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev collapsed in large part because Khrushchev demanded an apology that Eisenhower was unwilling to give. Gary Powers was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 3 years imprisonment and 7 years of hard labor. He only served 1 year 9 months and 9 days before being traded for the Soviet spy Colonel Rudolph Ivanovich Abel. This incident set in motion a pattern of mistrust that culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis, a time when U.S.-U.S.S.R. relations reached an all time low. No one can predict if the Cold War might have ended sooner had the U-2 incident.

Saleem Akhtar Malik was a Lt Colonel in the Pakistan Army. He holds an honors degree in War Studies, an MBA and an M.Phil in Management Sciences. He is the author of the book Borrowed Power. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.    

Saleem Akhtar Malik was a Lt Colonel in the Pakistan Army. He holds an honors degree in War Studies, an MBA and an M.Phil in Management Sciences. He is the author of the book Borrowed Power.

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