The U-2 spyplane was shot down over Russia in 1960 and over Cuba in 1962, both times by a radar-tracking missile. Why wasn't it equipped with any chaff to throw off the missile?

Chaff is just a cloud of aluminum particles that return a big radar blur, masking the real craft so it can get away. The missile would home in on the chaff instead since it's a big juicy radar target. Chaff can be stored in very small cylinders near the tail of the plane, and the radar lock warning would let the pilot use it at the right time.

Chaff was invented in World War 2, giving plenty of time all the way to the sixties. So why wasn't this airplane equipped with chaff?

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    $\begingroup$ Chaff only works if you know the radar frequency. There was no knowledge on Russian missile radars at this time, so any chaff would had needed a mixture of different lengths, burdening the aircraft with extra weight. On a long range mission it is easy to expend all chaff quickly and be hit later anyways. $\endgroup$ Nov 19, 2015 at 7:40
  • $\begingroup$ In the original U-2, space was at an absolute premium as well, so finding a place to put a chaff dispenser would have been difficult. $\endgroup$
    – Moo
    Nov 20, 2015 at 13:04

2 Answers 2


There are two main reasons for this:

  • USAF and CIA believed that the Russians (or anyone else) wouldn't be able to shoot down aircraft operating at (>60000ft).

  • Most of the aircraft operating during that time did not have chaff dispensers to deploy chaff as needed. For that to work, the pilot has to either visually acquire the missile or have a RWR, which became widely used only in the later stages of Vietnam War.

Another important reason is tactics. The chaff was not used in WWII in a tactical capacity i.e. to protect individual fighters, but to provide blanket coverage to bomber fleets. This practice continued well into the Vietnam War. For example, specialized aircraft (usually fighters) will dump chaff to provide a 'corridor' for following bombers. For an aircraft on reconnaissance mission, this is as good as advertising its presence.

A lot of aircraft in that era went without any countermeasures. For example, the English Electric Lightning carried no chaffs till its retirement in 80's.


At the time, it was believed that no missile could hit the U2 at 70,000 feet although this was more a belief driven by overconfidence and arrogance. When the U2 was designed this was true and there was simply no need to fit countermeasures.

Following this incident, flights over Russia were stopped.

Flights over Cuba were made in the belief that there were no SAMs and of course, it was a U2 that captured the photographs which showed the Soviet deployments there. Overflights were then stepped up to gather as much intelligence as possible whilst accepting the risk of being intercepted.

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    $\begingroup$ - overconfidence and arrogance I think that's a bit uncharitable. Speed and/or altitude were very effective defenses at the time (still are, to an extent)---indeed that's how we initially expected to keep our B-52s safe. The U-2 successfully operated hundreds of miles inside Soviet territory for years before Powers was shot down, despite being tracked and pursued a number of times (Power himself was captured 1300 miles inside Soviet borders). Being shot down or captured was always a risk; Powers himself carried a suicide pill just in case. But the US felt the risk worthwhile. $\endgroup$ Mar 8, 2016 at 6:53
  • $\begingroup$ In sum, there were a lot of reasons to be confident (which isn't to say there weren't indications that the U-2 was more vulnerable than was thought), but no one thought the U-2 was truly invulnerable---which is the major reason Eisenhower himself individually approved each overflight of Soviet territory---he feared the U-2 might be shot down and the pilot captured. And let's not forget the pressing need for good intel inside Soviet borders. Earth observation satellites did not yet exist, so a lot of the intel the U-2 acquired could not be obtained any other way. $\endgroup$ Mar 8, 2016 at 7:01
  • $\begingroup$ Flights over Cuba were made in the belief that there were no SAMs - No, the US was WELL aware of Cuban-based SAMs---in fact, that's why the US limited U-2 overflights for five weeks before the Cuban Missile Crisis, fearing another shootdown. When overflights restarted, they just didn't expect the Soviets to actually shoot at the U-2s. They were half-right; Soviet commanders were ordered not to shoot, but an individual commander disobeyed and actually took down a U-2. $\endgroup$ Mar 8, 2016 at 7:22

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