The first post-Second World War modern Soviet heavy bomber was a ‘clone’ of the American B-29 which was designated Tu-4. Several hundred were built, of which a number were configured for nuclear bomb delivery. Yet already by the mid-1950s the Tu-4 was obsolete.
That seemed not to be a particularly serious problem as new heavy bombers were either entering service or getting close to it.
As explained by Krzysztof Dabrowski in his book Tsar Bomba: Live testing of Soviet Nuclear Bombs, 1949-1962, the Tupolev design bureau could pride itself with two new creations: the Tu-16 jet bomber and the Tu-95 turboprop one. If longevity is anything to go by the latter proved most successful. In addition, a new design bureau headed by Vladimir Mikhaylovich Myasishchev presented its creation; the M-4 bomber; soon followed by an improved variant the 3M. Myasishchev’s aircraft were designed to have intercontinental range and thus to be truly ‘strategic,’ for it meant they would possess the capability to reach targets in continental North America.
Rather unsurprisingly, these developments were closely followed in the US. When evaluating Soviet bombers US analysts compared the Tu-16 to the B-47 Stratojet and the M-4 to the B-52 Stratofortress. The Myasishchev bomber in particular caused much alarm. It was first revealed during a flypast at the annual May Day parade (International Worker’s Day – lavishly celebrated in the Soviet Union for ideological reasons) in 1954. Subsequently it was displayed at a number of other flypasts and parades. In particular the flypast during the Soviet Aviation Day at the Tushino Airfield in July 1955 was to have far reaching consequences. During this event 10 M-4s were flown in view of the public: the formation then flew out of sight and joined up with eight additional bombers before turning around and then making another pass. This resulted in the illusion that the Soviets had shown no less than 28 bombers in a single fly-by – the initial formation of 10 and a second of 18. Seeing 28 Myasishchev bombers, Western analysts came to the conclusion that by 1960 the Soviets would have 800 of these in operational service.
Reality proved different to the analytic estimates. It was not known in the West at that time that Myasishchev bombers were difficult to fly, were unreliable al they were technically troublesome, could not be armed with some of the bulkier pieces of nuclear ordnance due to their bicycle undercarriage, and – most importantly- their unrefuelled range was actually insufficient to reach the US. For these reasons – and in particular the latter – it was decided not to pursue their large-scale production. Certainly enough, and together with Tu-95s, they did represent the first Soviet delivery systems capable of reaching US territory, and, from the moment they entered service in 1956, until the early 1960s, they were the only Soviet intercontinental delivery systems. Meanwhile, aerial reconnaissance by U-2 aircraft, which penetrated deep over the Soviet Union, showed that only a limited number of Myasishchev bombers were deployed at operational air bases, and there were no signs of large-scale production. However, the results of these early U-2 missions were kept ‘top secret.’ Moreover, some of those who had access to the reconnaissance material gathered, in particular the senior leadership of the USAF, had a vested interest in maintaining the image of a Soviet bomber threat as it provided them with a convenient justification for demanding a substantial build-up of their own bomber force.
As things stood – without a realistic picture of Soviet bomber capabilities being widely available – a Soviet ‘superiority’ in bombers vis-à-vis the US became known as the ‘bomber gap.’ This was to have far reaching consequences as it resulted in a number of American offensive and defensive countermeasures. The US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command would be substantially built up, receiving thousands of Boeing B-47 Stratojet (2,032 aircraft built) and Boeing B-52 Stratofortress (744 aircraft built) strategic bombers, supported by hundreds of Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers (803 aircraft built).
With this the US for some time gained a decisive edge in the number of strategic nuclear weapon delivery systems over the Soviet Union. This advantage would only be overcome by the Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal, but its development and build-up were still many years away. Meanwhile, in the defensive realm the feared Soviet bomber threat led to the creation of the North American Air Defense Command and its massive machinery, including hundreds of manned interceptors, surface-to-air missiles and related bases, large early warning radar stations, and the development of early warning aircraft.
One could endlessly argue on how justified and necessary of the American response was, however, it should be taken into consideration that in view of publicly available information at that time a substantially different reaction would have hardly been possible. Moreover, even though the Soviets were in fact able to carry out only very limited attacks against North America, one could ask: how much would have been acceptable? One, two or three thermonuclear bombs? Hundreds of thousands, a million or more casualties? Even a very few thermonuclear bombs on major urban centres could result in such numbers of killed and wounded. Thus, building up a retaliatory – as well as a defensive – capability was not completely out of place even if the ‘bomber gap’ never existed.
Tsar Bomba: Live testing of Soviet Nuclear Bombs, 1949-1962, is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, Unknown and Senior Airman Tessa B. Corrick / U.S. Air Force
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