An American in Moscow, or, How a Soviet clone cost North American taxpayers a fantastic sum of money, Part 2

A Tupolev Tu-4 on display at the Tsentral'niy Dom Aviatsiya i Kosmonavtika, Monino, near Moscow.
A Tupolev Tu-4 on display at the Tsentral'niy Dom Aviatsiya i Kosmonavtika, Monino, near Moscow.

Greetings, my reading friend. Are you still interested in linking the fantastic sum of money in our title to the Tupolev Tu-4 long range heavy bomber? Yes? Wonderful. Let us proceed. The prototype of this clone of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress first took to the sky in May 1947. As was to be expected for such a reverse engineering programme, the engineers at the many factories involved in the production of the airplane and its many components, from its landing gear to its engines, had to overcome severe problems. Interestingly, the engines of the Tu-4 were of Soviet design. Their cylinders were similar to those of an American engine made under license in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) since the late 1930s. The engine in question was designed by Wright Aeronautical Corporation, a division of Curtiss-Wright Corporation and the company behind the engines of the Superfortress. Small world, isn’t it?

The first Tu-4s went into service in 1948 but did not become fully operational until mid-1949. As was to be expected, Soviet aircrews and ground crews had to work very hard to master this complex machine. By the time production came to a close, in 1952-53, 1 000 or so Tu-4s had been built. A number of these airplanes could carry a nuclear bomb. Some Tu-4s were completed as long range photo reconnaissance or transport airplanes. A small number of airplanes were seemingly used for maritime patrol. As more modern, jet-powered bombers entered service, some Tu-4s were converted into experimental air refuelling airplanes, or air tankers. A few others were used to test new engines and long range air to surface missiles. An improved bombing version known as the Tupolev Type 80 did not proceed beyond the prototype stage. The same could be said of a military transport version known as the Type 75.

It is worth noting that the USSR transferred a few Tu-4s to the People’s Republic of China. Some / many of these airplanes, operated by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, or Zhōngguó Rénmin Jiěfànjūn Kōngjūn, were later refitted with turboprop engines. The last of these venerable machines was retired in the late 1980s.

Understandably enough, the Tu-4 was a source of great concern in North American and Western European military circles when it entered service. As the 1940s came to a close, the world was in the grips of the Cold War. The USSR had set up puppet governments over much of Eastern Europe. In Asia, the People’s Republic of China came into existence in October 1949. The detonation of the first Soviet nuclear weapon, in August of that same year, earlier than expected, combined with the outbreak of the Korean War, in June 1950, only made things worse.

If the USSR was to take over Iceland and Greenland, the Tu-4s of the long range / strategic bombing force of the USSR would be able to reach most of the industrial areas of the United States – and every such area inside Canada. Lacking the range to return home, every airplane would be lost but enough of them would escape interception to wreak serious damage.

Convinced that the Dalnaya Aviasiya, the new name of the Aviatsiya dalnovo deistviya, adopted in the 1950s, intended to replace its Tu-4s with more modern long range bombers, presumably jet-powered, the United States Air Force (USAF) and the Royal Canadian Air Force began to build a massive air defence network comprised of several chains of radar installations and many bomber interceptor bases. The cost of this network was nothing short of, yes, you guessed it, fantastic. One only has to think about the huge sums of Canadian taxpayer money spent to develop the Avro Canada CF-100 Canuck all weather bomber interceptor and its supersonic successor, the Avro CF-105 Arrow. The latter was cancelled, in February 1959, while still under development, but that’s another story.

What’s this? You want to read a bit more? Ah, music to my ears. The limited information available to the Central Intelligence Agency and USAF in 1954 led these organizations to believe that the USSR was producing large numbers of long range jet bombers. Many newspapers and politicians claimed that the United States was falling behind. This Bomber Gap was a fiction. One could argue that the USSR, willingly or accidentally, managed to con the United States and Canada into spending a fantastic sum of money to protect against a bomber force that did not really exist. The Missile Gap, which came to the fore after the October 1957 launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, by a rocket designed for use as an intercontinental ballistic missile, was just as fictitious. This being said, the American defence budget underwent a rearrangement. A lot of money went into the development and production of intercontinental ballistic missiles. By comparison, the development and production of new bomber interceptors was seriously curtailed.

Had the Cold War turned deadly during the early days of the Korean War, squadrons of Tu-4s would presumably have launched attacks on North America. One can imagine airplanes of this type coming across a formation of USAF bombers, maybe Boeing B-50 Superfortresses, an improved version of the B-29 Superfortress, going the other way. We can all be grateful that this nightmare scenario did not come to pass.

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Rénald Fortier