U.S. spy planes took off at least four times from an Indian airbase in Odisha for spying missions against the Chinese, according to a newly declassified history of the CIA’s U-2 spy plane programme, obtained by the National Security Archive (NSA) under the Freedom of Information Act.
The U.S.’s action was not borne out of affection for India but was dictated by two factors — first, the losses suffered in flying over the Soviet Union forced it to shift its spying assets to east Asia and, second, it had to keep a close eye on the Chinese, who were active in disputes with Taiwan and involved in the Korean peninsula.
According to other accounts, this cooperation in overflight, refuelling and basing led to the CIA transferring hi-tech equipment to India after the base closed in 1967 to keep an eye on China’s western region that was out of bounds for U.S. spy planes.
The first deployment of U.S. pilots and ground handlers to the Charbatia airbase ended in May 1964 with the death of Jawaharlal Nehru. It resumed a few months later and the archives record at least three flights in the post-Nehru phase, in addition to the one before his death.
The U.S. detachment stayed on at Charbatia till 1967 and served as an adjunct to the main operational base for American spy planes in Thailand.
Were more flights undertaken from this base?
According to the NSA, this might be the case because a lot of details are missing.
The information gleaned from aerial surveillance was yet another aspect of the close India-U.S. intelligence cooperation in the run-up to the 1962 India-China war and later. The secret surveillance flights began after Nehru allowed the Intelligence Bureau to join hands with U.S. agencies in the area of technical intelligence.
This permission was preceded by an eight-paragraph agreement signed by U.S. President John F Kennedy and President S. Radhakrishnan in June 1963.
According to the CIA, “Charbatia was still not on in early 1964, so on 31 March 1964 Detachment G staged another mission from Takhli.
0The first mission out of Charbatia did not take place until 24 May 1964. Three days later Prime Minister Nehru died, and further operations were postponed.
“The pilots and aircraft left Charbatia, but others remained in place to save staging costs. In December 1964, when Sino-Indian tensions increased along the border, Detachment G returned to Charbatia and conducted three highly successful missions, satisfying all requirements for the Sino-Indian border region. By this time, however, Takhli had become the main base for Detachment G's Asian operations, and Charbatia served merely as a forward staging base. Charbatia was closed out in July 1967,” said the report.
The India-U.S. cooperation in the area of intelligence, and its limitations — though not the spy plane flights — were also detailed by the late B. Raman.
“The U.S. intelligence, with the approval of John F Kennedy, agreed to supply the required equipment and train IB officers who would be using this equipment. However, it imposed a condition that this equipment would be used only for the collection of technical intelligence from China and not from Pakistan,” he wrote in The Kaoboys of RAW , an account of his days with the Research and Analysis Wing.