Cold War Bomber Gap

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U-2 cockpit

Players: single player in a group setting

Ages: 16 to adult

Grades: 11th to Higher Education

Standards Met: NGSS, CCSS, C3, CTE

Cold War Bomber Gap: how fear drives bad decisions.

Cognitive bias is ever present and can lead to disastrous decision making. Work with the same data available to the American intelligence services in 1956 to estimate the size of the Soviet long-range bomber fleet. Can you do better than the CIA?

At the end of World War II, the United States had very little reliable information about Soviet military capabilities. What the U.S. did learn, often came as an unpleasant surprise.

Fears that the Soviets had developed a long-range jet bomber capable of delivering atomic bombs to the United States became palpably real when the Soviets flew formations of a new jet bomber during a military air show in 1955. Observers counted 28 planes flying overhead.

In 1956, an American spy plane returned with pictures from Engels Air Force Base that showed a fleet of the latest Soviet jet bombers parked by the runway.

How many jet bombers did the Soviets have? Were the Americans falling behind in the arms race?

Students will analyze the U2 photographs taken over Engels to measure how many bombers were present. They work with a list of known air bases to estimate the total number of jet bombers in the Soviet Air Force.

These estimates will be compared with the estimates made by the CIA and other analysts at the time. Later, the Americans discovered the actual number of Soviet jet bombers was wildly different from what they had thought. What caused the estimates to be so far off? What were the consequences?

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