The CIA Got Top-Secret Soviet Weapons. Here's How.

Michael Peck

Sometimes the Cold War seemed like one big treasure hunt. When one side came out with a new weapon, the other side made every effort to get their hands on a copy to analyze, reverse-engineer or give it to guerrillas fighting the opposition.

The United States termed this Foreign Military Exploitation (FME). A collection of documents compiled by the nonprofit National Security Archive shows just how extensive America's campaign was to obtain the latest Russian gear.

For example, a 1951 U.S. Air Force intelligence report described how America got the chance to examine a MiG-15, the Soviet jet fighter that shocked U.S. pilots over Korea. After a dogfight northwest of Pyongyang on July 9, 1951, a MiG-15 pilot was seen bailing out before his fighter crashed in shallow water off the west coast of Korea. British aircraft found the wreckage, but a U.S. Air Force recovery team was unable to retrieve it.

In late July 1951, a combined U.S.-British naval and air task force tried again. Despite fire from Communist forces—which also attempted their own retrieval operation—the Anglo-American force was able to recover virtually the entire aircraft, which was then shipped to the United States for analysis. Other wrecked Soviet aircraft proved a goldmine, such as the Yak-28 Firebar interceptor that crashed in West Berlin in April 1966.

Perhaps the most famous case of grabbing Soviet technology came in the early 1960s, when the CIA "borrowed" and photographed a Soviet Luna satellite on display in Mexico. In 1965, the CIA arranged to get a new Soviet Mi-8 transport helicopter, and also requested $100,000 to obtain a Soviet Minsk-2 digital computer (no mention if the operation was successful).

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