The Classic Bronco Had a Small But Important Role In Winning The Cold War
Some of our older readers might be familiar with the term “Cold War”. It's commonly used to designate the tensions between the United States and NATO countries on one side, and the Soviet Union and the rest of the Eastern Block on the other.
The Cold War started just after WWII and lasted until the fall of communism in the early ‘90s. Needless to say, even though there wasn't any actual fighting done between the adversaries, the Cold War was characterized by a constant arms race, intense geopolitical actions and frantic intelligence-gathering activity on both sides.
You probably didn’t know that the Ford Bronco played a small but essential part in helping the Western World get the upper hand in this unusual and very serious conflict. Here's how.
When Nazi Germany was defeated in 1945, the country was divided into four sectors. The United States, England and France occupied West Germany while the Soviets retained control in East Germany. According to the post-war agreement, selected military personnel could enter the other sectors as observers.
The USMLM (the United States Military Liaison Mission) was represented by a small group of intelligence officers that were stationed in Germany. Under this reciprocal agreement, American officers were allowed to freely roam East Germany, and communist intelligence could travel through West Germany.
Of course, both sides used this access as an excuse to spy on each other, primarily since the Soviets had already equipped East Germany as their most significant military base and had accumulated an enormous number of soldiers and equipment -- even building nuclear siloes there.
So, going behind the “Iron Curtain” was immensely important in order for NATO to gather information about the USSR’s military activities.
The USMLM used numerous vehicles for its trips to East Germany, and its missions consisted of several days of driving, observing, taking pictures and collecting information. The imperative was to be stealthy, avoid unnecessary attention, and get as close as possible to the Soviet’s military installations. At first, the USMLM used ordinary, drab green sedans (mostly Fords), but since the mission required going off-road, the cars often got stuck, which increased the chances of getting noticed. Finally, in the mid-60s, the USMLM decided to use off-road vehicles, with the first ones being a fleet of Jeep Wagoneers.
However, the Wagoneers soon became too recognizable on what were largely deserted East German roads. Hence, the USMLM looked for something else --something smaller and designed to go off-road, but that could also carry plenty of photo equipment, including cameras and microphones, since American officers were at the same time recording Soviet planes passing by while using the audio files to determine the proximity of airports and types of aircraft that flew overhead.
When Ford announced the arrival of the Bronco, US intelligence took notice and contacted Ford through its special, semi-secret program. Although there is very little information on this, since most of the files were destroyed after the USMLM was disbanded in 1990, it appears that this unit got its first military-spec Bronco even before the model's official introduction in September of 1965.
Ford developed a military version of the first-gen Bronco and offered it to the US Army, which then bought 120 examples, which were divided among its branches. These models were mainly used for testing and were sent to Vietnam and Europe. It's unlikely that the Broncos saw actual combat, but they were extensively used until the early ‘70s, at which time came the decision that the US Army would stick with Jeeps and other all-terrain vehicles.
However, a small number of military-spec Broncos also ended up in Germany, where they went through USMLM preparations, got special license plates and were equipped with (what was at the time) cutting edge surveillance equipment.
Very soon, the Bronco became one of the main tools used by the USMLM unit. They were compact, capable and could carry two officers, plus extensive equipment, wherever they needed to go. Painted in matte olive green, the Bronco was a pretty stealthy vehicle, since it didn’t resemble any of the well-known models, which was important, since casual observers, villagers and Soviet soldiers could not recognize it or precisely name it.
The Bronco’s mission was to take military officers as close as possible to Soviet military installments, bases and airports, without being noticed. The crew spent hours and even days in Bronco, using special cameras and microphones to monitor suspicious activities, and took notes of everything that was going on around Soviet bases. The perfect spot for monitoring this activity was either in the woods adjacent to the military compounds or from abandoned houses.
Sometimes, the Broncos needed to be camouflaged to avoid being spotted by military planes or guards. Other time, USMLM officers were even intercepted, as shown in this picture. In those cases, soldiers checked their documents, confiscated their surveillance equipment and escorted them back to the border between East and West Germany.
Even though the Bronco wasn’t the only vehicle used by USMLM officers, it was one of its favorites, since it was so capable off-road, so functional for transportation and so hard to spot in the field. We know that the Broncos were used for several years, almost on a daily basis, until they became known to Soviet counter-intelligence officers, at which time the Bronco’s military use by the USMLM came to an end.
Since the Broncos were so useful and spent years of service in these missions, it's safe to say that this little American SUV had a clandestine but crucial role in Europe and helped win the Cold War, while also shaping political history. Even though it's impossible to know just how much information was gathered during its service, we're sure that more than a few retired intelligence officers believe that this was the best vehicle the USMLM had ever used.