Soviet Aircraft - Cold War
Attack aircraft of the USSR
Bombers & Attack
Tupolev Design Bureau
If after the Great War it seemed that a new major military conflict was impossible, since there were no prerequisites for political confrontation (in the West, Russia was not taken into account by the chaos of revolution and the Civil War), then already during the Potsdam conference of “great powers” in the summer of 1945, sharp political contradictions between the USSR and the former Western allies were revealed. The protracted cold war had begun.
In the Cold War the USSR's Frontal Aviation forces were more mission-specific than the major US fighters. They were primarily designed for air superiority or ground attack. Generally they did not undertake deep interdiction missions and the service's aircraft The MiG-21 and -27 were designed for air superiority; the Su-7 and -17 for close support; and the Su-24 for penetrating ground attack against hardened targets.
Within Voiska PVO, too, aircraft were designed for specific, limited roles. Pilot training, for example, concentrated on ground control interception, not free air combat, and the MiG-25, while performing high-altitude, high speed interception ably, was far less capable in other roles. The Su-9 was designed as a point defense interceptor; the Yak-28, as a low-altitude interceptor. The Tu-28 was built specifically for long-range intercepton. None possessed the multirole capabilities of US fighters.
It is also true that Soviet aircraft did not exhibit the same level of technology as US aircraft. But one should not underestimate Soviet equipment, for in some areas it performs very well. The U.S.S.R.'s electro-optical and laser systems are highly capable, as are its ECM and infrared equipment. But overall, Soviet designers did not build into their aircraft the high-performance characteristics typical of U.S. forces. Their onboard computers are less sophisticated, and they fall far short of the United States in the use of composites and miniaturized avionics.
Indeed, the MiG-25 in which Lieutenant Viktor Belenko defected in September 1976 did not even make extensive use of advanced metals. The aircraft was constructed primarily of steel, with titanium found only in structures subject to extreme heating, such as the wing leading edges. The resultant weight penalty reduced the amount of equipment that could be carried, and this constraint was still further exacerbated by the aircraft's use of vacuum tubes rather than solid-state circuiting in its electronics. A comparative examination of climb, acceleration, turn radius, and radar capability reveals the superiority of the F-15 and F-16 to late-model MiG-21s and the MiG-25, and even the older F-4 compared not unfavorably.
Underlying the differences between US and Soviet aircraft were divergent approaches to aircraft design. The United States emphasized complexity, versatility, and technological sophistication and was willing to sacrifice a certain amount of quantity in exchange for higher quality. Within the Soviet Union, however, radically different practices were fostered among the research and development (R&D) community during Stalin's rule and remained persistent features of Soviet design policy. The five most prominent of these recurrent patterns are simplicity, commonality, prototype modeling, incrementalism, and reliance on foreign technology.
The simplicity of Soviet designs related to their modest performance specifications, just sufficient to allow completion of the minimum tasks required and no more. Simplicity was evident in the designs as a whole, in the utilization of conventional, readily available construction materials, and in the lack of detailed finishing. Commonality refers to the use of standardized parts and assemblies on various types of aircraft whenever possible. Alternatively, an entire aircraft series, on reaching obsolescence in its original role, may be modified to fulfill some new system requirement.
This was not, however, the multirole principle found in NATO designs, in that Soviet aircraft usually were not designed with more than one function in mind. It is only after an aircraft could no longer perform the specific mission for which it was originally created, or when an unforeseen requirement had arisen for which no aircraft yet existed, that an attempt is made to find a new use for the older series.
The ASh-82 engine, for example, was used to outfit the World War II-vintage La-5 fighter, the Tu-2 frontal bomber, and the Pe-8 long-range bomber. Indeed, twenty years later it was still in service on the I1-14 passenger carrier and the Mi-4 helicopter. Similarly, the Su-7 ground-attack fighter and the Su-9 interceptor, although fitted with different wings, armament, and equipment to suit their particular roles, nevertheless possessed identical fuselages and tails. To take another example, in a somewhat different vein the M-4 Bison though being phased out of its bomber role, was being modified to serve as a tanker, and a version of the old Tu-95 Bear was developed to operate in an antisubmarine warfare capacity.
The third feature of the USSR's design process, prototype modeling, specifies the purpose to which research, development, testing, and evaluation are being directed. In the Soviet Union, newly designed aircraft fell into two categories, "test" (opytnye) and "experimental" (eksperimental'nye). Test models were designed to serve as prototypes of forthcoming series production aircraft, and the emphasis was placed on feasibility and existing technologies.
Experimental aircraft, on the other hand, were not intended for series production but are built to test a particular new technology or flight characteristic--record-breaking speed, new maneuvers, a new design principle, etc. Prototype modeling, then, provided a link between the static traits of Soviet design policy (simplicity and commonality in series production aircraft) and the dynamic features that foster innovation (incrementalism and foreign input).
While experimental prototypes (I and Ye series) occasionally introduce major improvements in technology, the predominant pattern has been gradual upgrading. Even what appear to be discontinuous advances in the performance characteristics of deployed aircraft have, in fact, been achieved little by little through prototype testing. The transition from the MiG-19 to the delta-wing MiG-21, for example, involved five intervening prototypes: (1) the Ye-50, a sweptwing aircraft with an upgraded MiG-19 engine; (2) the Ye-2A, a sweptwing model equipped with the future MiG-21 production engine; (3) the Ye-5, a deltawing prototype with the same fuselage and engine as the Ye-2A; (4) the Ye-6, a preproduction series very similar to the Ye-5; and, finally, (5) the production version, the MiG-21F/Fishbed-C. This model itself has undergone extensive upgrading since its introduction in 1960, so that the most recent version had twice the range and payload of the original.
The fifth major avenue to qualitative improvement employed by the Soviets is to borrow from Western technology and experience. Numerous examples could be given, from the jet engine to integrated circuitry. Such innovation may take the form of partial borrowing or complete replication (bez otsebiatiny). As A. Fedoseev, an applied scientist who recently defected from the Soviet Union, explains: "The themes of new military developments are taken from foreign technical journals and intelligence information on foreign equipment, and often arise as a result of obtaining actual examples of the equipment from abroad."
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