The Tupolev Tu-4 was the Soviet copy of the four-engined B-29. In 1952, ten of them were transferred to China as a personal gift from Stalin to Mao.
After Mao’s communists took control of mainland China in 1949, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) developed an uneasy partnership with the nationalist Chinese government on Taiwan for covert air operations over the mainland – dropping agents and propaganda, and collecting signals, imagery and nuclear intelligence.
But Communist China’s air defences reacted with determination and ingenuity to the unwelcome intruders.
As told by Chris Pocock with Clarence Fu in the book The Black Bats CIA Spy Flights Over China from Taiwan 1951-1969, in mid-1959 the Soviet Union unilaterally terminated the defence agreement it had signed with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) only two years earlier. The dispute between the two giants of the communist world over doctrine and influence would last for decades. From now on, the Chinese would have to copy the Soviet military hardware that they had already been given or develop their own.
In fact, those officers responsible for the air defence of the PRC were already striving to develop their own unique methods of intercepting the 34th Squadron (aka Black Bats) aircraft from Taiwan. In 1958 the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) decided to convert three of its vintage Tupolev Tu-2 light bombers into all weather interceptors by fitting them with the RP-5 radar from the MiG-17PF. The Tu-2 was a Second World War design, a mid-wing, twin-piston engine machine that was fast fog its day — the maximum speed was 280 knots. The Soviet Union had given at least 240 of them to the PRC.
With a range of over 1,200 miles, the PLAAF reasoned that the Tu-2 could loiter it the areas overflown by the P2Vs and B-17s for much longer than the MiG-17PF. Typically the MiGs could only make a couple of attacking passes before running low on fuel and returning to base. Moreover, the speed of the Tu-2 was closer to that of the intruders. The MiG pilots who were scrambled to intercept the slower-flying B-17s and P-2 (designated P2V by the US Navy prior to September 1962) were finding that they only had 10 seconds to acquire and fire on the target. This was because the RP-5 had an air-to-air range of only four kilometres. More often than not the MiG pilots were overshooting their targets. They would try to reposition for a second attack from the rear but after 20 minutes they would be short of fuel. GCI controllers would recall them to base and clear the AAA guns to try their luck, until another pair of MiGs could be scrambled.
By adding the MiG’s RP-5 air intercept radar to the nose of the Tu-2, and with two 23mm cannons installed at the wing roots, the PLAAF hoped for greater success. The navigator’s station behind the pilot was modified for a second pilot, who viewed the radar scope and flew the aircraft during interceptions. The radio operator’s position was retained while a new position was found for the navigator, farthest aft, replacing the second gunner’s position on the original Tu-2. Nine crews from the 25th Bomber Division at Lintong airbase, in Shaanxi province, completed their training on the modified Tu-2PFs in mid-1959.
However, the plan to use the three specially-converted Tu-2 bombers didn’t work. In early 1960 one PLAAF commander came up with another scheme. He suggested that they use a larger bomber, the Tupolev Tu-4. This was the Soviet copy of the four-engined B-29. In 1952, ten of them were transferred to China as a personal gift from Stalin to Mao. They served with the 4th Regiment at Shijiazhuang, southwest of Beijing in Hebei province. The Tu-4’s speed closely matched that of the P2V, and with a duration of more than six hours it could follow the intruder for a long time.
PLAAF commander Liu Ya Lou agreed to an experimental conversion. The bomber’s main search radar was transformed into an air intercept system by moving the antenna from the belly to a radome that was added to the upper fuselage, where the forward upper gun turret was previously situated. The Tu-4 still had four other defensive positions where 23mm cannons were fitted. An infrared sight with a range of up to two miles was added to these positions, so that the gunners could visually acquire the P-2 as their target and open fire. The bomb bay of the Tu-4 was converted to a command post with a radar screen and places for an airborne intercept officer, two navigators, and two chart plotters. After a month of test flights at Wukong airbase in Shaanxi proved the concept. three more Tu-4s were converted to this novel role of airborne bomber-interceptor.
The first attempted interception by a Tu-4 took place on the night of Mar. 1, 1960. A P-2 flew into Jiangsu and almost immediately encountered a MiG-17. The Black Bat crew detected another 13 enemy sorties launched against them during this mission. The flight was found by searchlights for a time. A Tu-4 joined the action and followed them for miles across Henan and Anhui provinces without managing to attack. The Black Bats crew dropped over 2,000 lbs of leaflets along their route and recorded no fewer than 216 enemy radar signals.
Surprisingly, the post-mission summary of this flight that was circulated at the regular weekly DPD staff meeting back in Washington casually noted that “normal Chine reaction was encountered.”
The Black Bats CIA Spy Flights Over China from Taiwan 1951-1969 is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Max Smith via Wikipedia