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

The story of the Soviet 3M Bison bombers that had to nuke Europe if the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated into World War III

By Dario Leone
Jul 16 2022
Sponsored by: Schiffer Military
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This was the only occasion when 3M bombers on quick-reaction alert (QRA) duty actually sat armed with nuclear bombs, ready to take off at short notice.

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.

Many of the intended versions never materialized, and the Bison had its share of problems, but it came at just the right time, providing a valuable nuclear deterrent.

As explained by Yefim Gordon & Dmitriy Komissarov in their book Myasishchev M-4 and 3M: The First Soviet Strategic Jet Bomber, despite the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion (Operation Zapata) between Apr. 14 and 19, 1960, the US did not give up the idea of toppling the Cuban Communist government of Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz. Actually, Castro feared that the US administration was planning a full-scale military operation. Knowing that the small Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces were no match for the US war machine, Castro requested military assistance from the Soviet Union. An agreement was soon reached whereby a 40,000-strong Soviet military contingent was deployed on Cuba, including three regiments of R-12 (izdeliye 8K63, NATO SS-4 Sandal) intermediate-range ballistic missiles and two regiments of R-14 (izdeliye 8K65, NATO SS-5 Skean) IRBMs. It was these weapons systems that triggered the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis of September—November 1962, which put the world on the brink of the Third World War.

Faced with the increasing probability of a hot war with the US, the Soviet MoD regrouped its forces hastily. Among other things, the 1096th and 1230th TBAPs, making up the 201st TBAD, were redeployed to a forward-operating location at Siauliai in order to reduce their 3M Bison strategic bomber’s target approach time. This was the only occasion when 3M bombers on quick-reaction alert (QRA) duty actually sat armed with nuclear bombs, ready to take off at short notice (in contrast, USAF B-52s prowling along the Soviet borders always had nukes on board in those days).

Two squadrons of each regiment were to strike at the continental US; the third squadron was equipped with hastily outfitted 3MS-2 tankers to support the operation. The bomber crews were issued sealed flight bags with route maps indicating their targets, and sealed envelopes with the nuclear bombs’ activation codes.

They never got to see the nukes proper, accepting the already bombed-up aircraft with security seals on the bomb bay doors. The Soviet air force’s tactical-aviation units and the DA’s Tu-16P Badger-J ECM aircraft (P = postanovshchik pomekh — ECM aircraft) were to help the bombers get unscathed past the NATO bases in western Europe, but later the Bisons would be on their own. The airmen were subjected to immense psychological strain, knowing that in the event of a nuclear war their own families would surely perish. Still, morale was high; `Do what you have to do, and come what may!’

However, realising that an all-out war with the US would be a war of destruction, the Soviet leaders had the common sense to back down and seek a political solution. On Oct. 26, Nikita S. Khrushchov acknowledged the deployment of Soviet missiles to Cuba (which he had hitherto denied) but stated they would never be used against the US. He offered to US president John F. Kennedy to withdraw all Soviet offensive weapons from Cuba in exchange for a pledge of nonaggression against Cuba; he also demanded that the US ballistic missiles deployed in Turkey, which were causing great concern of the Soviet government, be withdrawn. On Oct. 27, JFK replied that the USA guaranteed nonaggression and that the blockade of Cuba would be lifted on condition that the withdrawal of the Soviet offensive weapons be monitored by the United Nations. A day later, the Soviet government accepted this offer, making an appropriate statement. Between Nov. 5 and 9, all 42 IRBMs were shipped back to the USSR, and the launchpads were demolished. Hence the of state of heightened alert was cancelled, and the bombers of the 201st TBAD returned to their home base in Engels – much to the del relief of everyone concerned.

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

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

Photo credit: U.S. Navy


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Dario Leone

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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