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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Tu-119 / Tu-95LAL

The Tu-119 was an experimental aircraft with nuclear powerplant. The project of the middle to late 50s was based on Tu-95 a/c. Within the project a flying atomic laboratory Tu-95LAL was built whereon the first native nuclear reactor was tested at the beginning of the 1960s.

From 1952 to 1955 in the USSR there had been discussions and studies, even including the construction of full-scale mockup of a nuclear-powered bomber. The mockup was based on studies by leading Soviet aircraft and missile designers Vladimir Myasishchev (the designer of the Bison bomber), Andrei Tupolev (credited with the Bull, Badger, and Bear bombers), Semyon Lavochkin (the designer of the Burya strategic cruise missile), and Sergei Korolev, who designed many missiles, including the first Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite to have been launched.

But ANP had not been a Soviet priority until 1955. Soviet intelligence determined that a US Air Force NB-36H (modified bomber) test flight in late December 1955 had been a successful test of radiation shielding of a nuclear reactor on board the bomber. The Soviets concluded that the flight was a step forward in a program to develop a nuclear-propelled bomber.

From 1956 into 1961, the reinvigorated Soviet ANP program focused on development of an ANP testbed aircraft termed “Aircraft 119” or LAL (Letayushchaya atomnaya laboratoriya, the Flying Atomic Laboratory). It was affectionately called the Swallow (Lastochka). The Swallow was an adaptation of the largest Soviet bomber at the time, the four-engine turboprop Tu-95 (NATO code-name Bear). It was created in a large hangar at a nuclear complex near Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan.

Extensive experimentation and analysis were undertaken in the laboratory, and multiple delays were experienced in working on the reactor. The Swallow finally took flight with a reactor on board (but not providing propulsion) in the summer of 1961. These flights, like the NB-36H flights in the United States, were successful, but it quickly became apparent that the problem of shielding the interior of the aircraft from the reactor’s radiation was too great.

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.

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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Page last modified: 26-09-2016 19:12:45 ZULU