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The Comet Affair

Why the cold war forced the British government to choose between keeping a friend and arming an enemy.

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Then the Soviets came calling.

It was a proposition no one expected. In the spring of 1946, without even so much as an informal inquiry beforehand, Moscow sent an order for 20 Nene and Derwent engines. The order came accompanied by a threat: Failure to sell could further harm deteriorating East-West relations, and dash any hope of the British purchasing much-needed Soviet timber. Furthermore, the Russians had a long memory for slights.

Attlee’s foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, warned Attlee that the Soviets might be producing copies of the British engines in as little as three to five years; at one meeting he burst out: “How mad we are!” for even considering the sale.

He had a point: The Soviets had already proved themselves skilled and swift reverse-engineers. In 1944, the Soviets had taken three U.S. B-29s that had been “interned” in Siberia after the pilots had made emergency landings there in World War II’s final months (see “Made in the U.S.S.R.,” Feb./Mar. 2001); in three years the Soviets had broken the bombers apart piece by piece and produced copies of them, right down to the extra ashtrays and chewing gum containers U.S. pilots had rigged up in the cockpit.

Despite all the misgivings, Attlee felt he had to approve the Nene sales. By the summer of 1947, more than 50 engines had arrived in Soviet ports.

U.S. news media were quick to spread the startling news. “An outrage,” one Washington newspaper exclaimed, while another editorialized that “few stories are of greater importance to the American public” than Britain’s role in the deaths of American pilots. The news reports sent “all hell bucking loose on Capitol Hill,” observed Under Secretary of State Robert Lovett. Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington brooded: “The British government has placed economic factors ahead of any present or future military implications which might be involved,” a decision that “might have rather grave implications respecting the security of the United States.” Lovett agreed. Selling advanced engines to the Soviets “was not only unwise but unnecessary,” he roared at Lord Iverchapel, Britain’s ambassador to the United States, but “also showed a surprising lack of cooperation” in the fight against global Communism. Any similar sale in the future “might have very far-reaching results in other matters affecting the relationship of our two governments.” In other words: If Britain ever made such a move again, it might soon find itself dangerously alone.

Attlee’s decision soon had deadly consequences. Just 18 months after receiving their first shipment of Nene engines, Soviet technicians had produced and installed exact copies into the first MiG-15s, thus producing the Soviets’ first world-class jet fighter. Six months later, the Soviets were producing whole squadrons of MiG-15s, powered by Soviet copies of the Nene. By 1950, the year the Korean War began, the MiG-15 fleet numbered in the hundreds, and Soviet factories produced over 200 more each month.

The MiGs soon came to dominate Korean skies. “When MiGs break through our fighter screen,” the New York Times military analyst Hanson Baldwin told readers, “a B-29 [is] shot down or damaged nearly every time.” In the official Air Force history The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950–1953, author Robert Futrell dourly concluded, “the Soviet fighter’s performance rendered obsolete every U.S. plane in the Far East. The Russian fighter outclassed the [U.S. Air Force’s piston-driven] Mustang, whose pilots had no hope for survival when attacked by a MiG except to keep turning inside, to hit the deck, and to head for home as fast as possible.” The MiG bested every other propeller-driven U.S. fighter brought to battle in the war’s first months, and it went on to outpace America’s first-generation jets, the F-80 and F-84, as well. In level flight the MiG was fully 100 mph faster than the F-80C; recalls Futrell: “It could climb away from the old Shooting Star as if it were anchored in the sky.”

Part of the success was due to Soviet talent: The engine copies the Soviets had made were “a very marked improvement of the [Nene] jet engine that was sold to the Russians several years ago,” U.S. Air Force General Hoyt Vandenberg admitted to a secret Senate hearing in 1951, adding that they were “superior to any jet engine we have today.” Only the U.S. F-86 had any chance of matching the MiG in speed and maneuverability. Today, aviation historians continue to argue over which was better: the F-86 or the MiG-15. The former was faster in level flight, the latter better at high altitudes. The Soviet airplane employed a powerful cannon; the U.S. craft, six rapid-fire machine guns. Most historians agree that the MiG lacked an adequate gunsight.

Even so, Sabre pilots were almost invariably outnumbered. “I personally counted more than 120 MiGs high above me on one flight,” recalls Robinson Risner, who bagged eight MiGs during his combat tour. “This was while we had no more than 75 F-86s for the whole of Korea.”

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