Soviet Atomic Bombers - Western Views
Following close on the heels of the successful "Bomber Gap" came the "Nuclear Bomber Gap," which in contrast to its predecessor, seems to have been fabricated virtually out of thin air.
In 1956 in the French magazine "Avion" there was a note that the construction of an atomic bomber capable of delivering an atomic bomb to any part of the world was begun in the USSR. The text was also attached to the picture, which was depicted as a giant bomber, executed according to the canard scheme. Soon this news was picked up in other publications, often adding their own details. In 1958, in the Italian edition of "Aviation Journal" again, this plane appears. This is again a Soviet atomic bomber, but this time there are more details about him. The speed of the plane is 2 Mach, it carries 10 hydrogen bombs, the length is 98 meters. The plane is already being built on a secret plant in Siberia and would be completed in 1960. The article ends with an appeal to create a similar airplane in NATO rather.
And there is the source of all this disgrace. In the early 50's, the USSR published the popular science book "The use of atomic engines in aviation," in which many different projects of atomic aircraft were presented. Among them was an ordinary atomic passenger plane. Later, some of the information from this book came to the west, where it was incorrectly regarded by journalists. So the atomic airliner became a terrible Soviet atomic bomber.
The Special NIE 11-7-58 issued on 5 June 1958, raised the possibility of an early Soviet test flight of a nuclear testbed for a future bomber. The Air Force, however, placed a dissenting footnote expressing its “belief” that “an aircraft nuclear propulsion system could now be undergoing flight tests in a prototype airframe.” NIE 11-4-58, issued on 23 December 1958, went a step further. It expressed the belief that “within the next few years the USSR could fly an airborne nuclear testbed.” This time the intelligence chiefs for the Joint Staff and Navy took a footnote.
In addition, the estimate referred to the newly identified bomber prototype (code-named Bounder). The NIE stated "The possibility for development of BOUNDER with a more advanced propulsion system exists, and the design intent for a nuclear-powered vehicle cannot be excluded at this time. However, present information is inadequate to permit an estimate of BOUNDER’s probable development." (p. 38) The Bounder was later abandoned by Moscow as a failed attempt to find a successor to the marginally effective Bison, and was never considered by the Soviets as a nuclear engine testbed. The US Air Force after some time ended consideration of it as a part of the Soviet ANP program.
In December 1958, Aviation Week claimed that: "a nuclear-powered bomber is being flight tested in the Soviet Union. Completed about six months ago, this aircraft has been flying in the Moscow area for at least two months. It has been observed both in flight and on the ground by a wide variety of foreign observers from Communist and non-Communist countries." The article further claimed that the aircraft was "not a flying test bed in the sense that earlier US Air Force and Navy programs had called for installing a nuclear powerplant in a conventional airframe such as the B-36...solely for test purposes. The Soviet aircraft is a prototype of a design to perform a military mission as a continuous airborne alert warning system and missile launching platform..."
Representative Melvin Price of Illinois, Chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, declared in 1959 that the Russians were from three to five years ahead of the US in the field of atomic aircraft engines and that they would move even further ahead unless the US pressed forward with its own program. The description given to the Soviet aircraft's mission was surprisingly similar to a proposed US system that was being explored by several defense contractors.
As described by then-deputy chief of staff for development for nuclear weapons Maj. Gen. Donald Keirn: "[a]n ideal airborne alert manned aircraft system must carry a large payload and remain on nomadic patrol for extended periods of time in various areas of the world...It must...be capable of instantaneous reaction with air launched missiles...following up the missile launching phase with a low-level high-speed penetration of the enemy's heartland in order to seek out and destroy hardened targets or targets whose locations are not sufficiently well known to permit attack by long-range missiles."
Several years later, a prototype of a Soviet conventionally-powered bomber, NATO code-named "Bounder," which never entered production, was found to closely resemble the schematics given to support the original nuclear airplane revelations. To date there is no indication that the Soviets were actually embarked on an aircraft nuclear propulsion program.
Finally, NIE 11-2-63 (2 July 1963) stated: "The Soviet aircraft nuclear propulsion program appears to have been delayed and may have been cut back or even canceled."
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