Cold War Era

The story of the low-level flight tactics devised to allow Soviet M-4 and 3M Bison bombers to penetrate NATO air defence system

Between January and August 1964, a research programme was held to investigate the possibility of maximum-range flights of Tu-95 and 3M bombers at 50-200 m (164-660 ft.) in the daytime and at 200-300 m (660-980 ft.) at night.

When the Myasishchev design bureau was reborn in 1951, it was immediately tasked with creating a high-speed strategic bomber to balance the threat posed by NATO’s heavy bombers, notably the B-52.

Designated M-4 and code-named “Bison” by NATO, the new four-turbojet bomber was developed within an incredibly short time—just one year. It made use of many innovative features, including a bicycle landing gear, and was designed around the most powerful jet engine of the day. It became the progenitor of a small family of bombers and refueling tankers, including the much-improved 3M and its versions.

Could the Bison penetrate the air defence system of the ‘potential adversary’ (NATO)? As explained by Yefim Gordon & Dmitriy Komissarov in their book Myasishchev M-4 and 3M: The First Soviet Strategic Jet Bomber, the numerous radar pickets, SAM sites, and supersonic interceptors stationed in western Europe and North America left few chances getting through, even in a first-strike scenario. The six cannons the M-4 would hardly give it enough protection. The only hope the bomber’s crew had lay in the ECM suite and the armour plating protecting the crew against shell fragments.

The notorious shoot-down of Francis Gary Powers‘s high-flying Lockheed U-2A spy plane (56-6689) by an S-75 SAM (NATO code name SA-2 Guideline) near Sverdlovsk on May 1, 1960 had made it obvious that strategic bombers were no longer invulnerable at high altitudes. However, it soon became clear that their perceived extreme vulnerability to enemy air defences was somewhat exaggerated. The US quickly devised an ‘anti-SAM tactic’ — from 1962 onward, the B-52s were supposed to penetrate the enemy’s SAM barriers at low altitude, where the missile guidance radars could not track them. Exercises showed that low-level/ultra-low-level penetration could give a fair chance of success. The Soviet Union answered in kind; between January and August 1964, a research programme was held to investigate the possibility of maximum-range flights of Tu-95 and 3M bombers at 50-200 m (164-660 ft.) in the daytime, when obstacles and terrain were visible, and at 200-300 m (660-980 ft.) at night. This low-level tactic significantly increased the chances of air defence penetration by single aircraft (formation flying at low level was ruled out – for safety reasons, if nothing else). Of course, the turbulence at low altitudes imposed additional strain on the airframe, and this was where the Myasishchev bomber had an advantage over the Tu-95 thanks to its flexible wings, which could cope better with the turbulence. Another important advantage was the Bison’s lower radar cross-section in the frontal aspect because it was jet powered; the Tu-95’s propellers markedly increased its radar signature.

However, these low-level flights never got further than the experimental stage; operational use of this tactic required the aircraft (including the 3M) to be modified in order to withstand the turbulence at low altitude. The Ministry of Aircraft Industry (MAP) declined to undertake this work, which eventually had to be performed by the Ministry of General Machinery (MOM). The Council of Ministers tasked Viktor N. Bugaiskiy, who headed Branch 1 of MOM’s OKB-52, with getting the 3M low-level combat operations programme included into the task list of KB-90, headed by V. Gusarov; the work was to proceed in January—February 1966. The bomber’s range on a ‘hi-lo-hi’ mission profile decreased dramatically, but this was an acceptable price for the reduced vulnerability during air defence penetration.

Another point to be considered is that even though the M-4 and 3M had their reliability issues, they were far more reliable than contemporaneous intercontinental ballistic missiles. Also, unlike ICBMs, strategic bombers were highly mobile, having greater mobility than the ballistic missile submarines that were just coming on the scene; not only could they be rapidly redeployed, but they could be assigned a new target in midmission if the need arose.

Well, actually the Bisons were initially authorised to use only a handful of bases with long runways – Engels-2 AB, Ookrainka AB, Dyagilevo AB (near Ryazan’, in central Russia), Siauliai (pronounced `Shaooliay’; in Lithuania), and Chagan AB (in Kazakhstan). A technique was devised of taking off with a reduced fuel load that allowed the bombers to be dispersed to virtually any Soviet air base if the possibility of a preemptive strike loomed. The service pilots quickly discovered that with a reduced TOW, the M-4 really leapt into the air.

Myasishchev M-4 and 3M: The First Soviet Strategic Jet Bomber is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: LT Dave Parsons / U.S. Navy

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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