Twilight Warriors: Covert Air Operations against the USSR (review)
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Reviewed by
Curtis Peebles, Twilight Warriors: Covert Air Operations against the USSR. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2005. 330 pp. $29.95.

Aerospace historian Curtis Peebles has authored books on space and aerial reconnaissance, the controversy over unidentified flying objects, secret aircraft projects, and U.S. attempts to use balloons to spy on the Soviet Union. His latest book examines U.S. covert air operations during the Cold War—operations that included the insertion of spies and resistance personnel, the delivery of supplies (including weapons and equipment), and the extraction of aircraft crews and covert forces from hostile territory. Despite the book's subtitle it covers far more than operations directed against the USSR.

By the time Peebles reaches his concluding chapter, he has described the insertion of spies and resistance groups into the Soviet Union, Albania, and Poland in the early years of the Cold War; air-drops of agents during the Korean War and their activities on the ground; the use of the Civil Air Transport corporation by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for covert operations against Communist China; air operations in the clandestine guerrilla war over Tibet; the operations of two CIA proprietary companies, Intermountain Aviation and Air America, in the Congo and Southeast Asia respectively; and air-supported covert activities directed against North Vietnam. In addition, he provides an account of the B-17 and its skyhook system, featured in the 1965 James Bond film Thunderball, and its use in the recovery of U.S. naval personnel from an abandoned Soviet ice station they had been investigating.

One might expect that a book with a subtitle that begins "covert air operations" would, while keeping in mind the ultimate objective of the operations on the ground, devote significant attention to topics such as the aircraft employed and any special equipment onboard, the selection of air routes, the challenges and perils of flying covert missions, and the organizations involved in planning and carrying out such missions. Sometimes Peebles does discuss these topics—at least to some extent. He describes the origins and activities of Air America and other proprietary corporations and provides an account of the 8th Air Rescue Group and its SC-47 transport planes—which were key elements in the highly secret Strategic Aircrew Recovery Program (SARP). He describes the rescue group's organization, the modifications to the SC-47, and the special training in low-level flight, night flying, and mountain flying provided to its pilots.

But in other instances Peebles's focus is largely on the covert activities taking [End Page 113] place on the ground, with the air element being but a peripheral part of the account. As a result, the chapters on U.S. covert air operations against the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (specifically, Albania and Poland) and North Vietnam are little more than summaries of previous, more detailed, studies of these covert actions. Another chapter, "Tinker, Tailor, Tourist, Spy," seems even more out of place, being largely devoted to the collection of intelligence by Americans visiting the Soviet Union in the 1950s. At the end of the chapter Peebles does turn to tourist support of U-2 overflights—a topic that, like other aerial intelligence collection programs, is not covered (excluding brief references) elsewhere in the book.

Even more disconnected from the book's title is Peebles's concluding chapter, which briefly discusses the evolution of the Cold War and covert operations, without any significant discussion of the covert air element of the operations described in previous chapters. The final pages contain observations such as "The central role of the Internet in the global economy and society makes it difficult for a totalitarian state to counter it" (p. 300) and "The struggles during the Cold War were only one chapter in the historical struggle between the rights of the individual and state tyranny." (p. 301) The problem is not the content of the observations but their essential irrelevance to the subject of his book.

That Peebles did not have more to say in the main body and conclusions of the book about the details of covert air operations during the Cold War and their ultimate significance...