Made in the U.S.S.R.

Of course they copied it. The two airplanes could have been twins. But was the Soviets’ Tu-4 truly an exact duplicate of the Boeing B-29?

View, from slightly above, of several Boeing B-29 Superfortresses flying in formation, 1945. (NASM)
Air & Space Magazine

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The Tu-4 became truly operational in 1948 and 1949, as production reached full capacity. By 1950 Soviet Long Range Aviation had deployed nine Tu-4 regiments, each with 32 bombers. NATO assigned the Tu-4 the code name “Bull.” In the early 1950s the Soviet Union sent a batch of Tu-4As to the People’s Republic of China. This move gave the Chinese a credible bomber force for the first time. A contingent of about 32 Tu-4s was deployed in the Soviet Far East to serve in the reconnaissance role, and during the Korean War the number of Tu-4 bombers increased dramatically; recently uncovered archives number the fleet at 845 aircraft.

The Soviets detonated their first nuclear device from a tower on August 29, 1949. As soon as they perfected the bomb, Stalin approved high-priority experiments to adapt the Tu-4 as its airborne delivery system. On October 18, 1951, a Tu-4 bomber dropped an atomic bomb near Semipalatinsk. It would not be until November 1955 that a Soviet bomber, in this case a Tu-16, dropped the first Soviet H-Bomb. For NATO observers, these events confirmed the Soviet Union’s enhanced capabilities in strategic aviation.

The West reacted with increasing alarm. The Tu-4 never possessed the range to pose a real threat to the United States—only a one-way mission could threaten Chicago or New York City—but the very existence of the Tu-4 and its jet-powered successors prompted the United States to set up an array of defensive systems, including the Nike surface-to-air missiles and the Skysweep radar-guided antiaircraft guns of the 1950s.

The Soviets also experimented with the Tu-4 as a tanker for aerial refueling, and several systems were tried before the perfection of a probe-and-drogue system in October 1952. Eventually this system was used for refueling MiG-15 jet fighters in an effort to expand the striking range of the Soviet air force. With the advent of the Jet Age, the Soviets realized that the Tu-4 was obsolete, a perception reinforced by the losses in combat of American B-29s in the Korean War.

Only once in the cold war years of the 1950s did the Soviets threaten to deploy the Tu-4 in combat, although the details are unclear. In the first hours of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, at a time when party secretary Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviet military were debating the options to counter a revolt in Hungary, several Tu-4 bombers were ordered to drop conventional bombs on Budapest. Saner minds prevailed, and the flight was called back while en route to the Hungarian capital, leaving Soviet ground forces and tanks to resolve the problem. This aborted flight remains one of the more controversial episodes associated with the history of the Tu-4.

Ramp Tramp flew for nearly a decade, and soon acquired a legendary status among bomber crews as the progenitor of the Soviet strategic air arm in the early years of the cold war. Many Soviet bomber pilots in the early stages of the Tu-4 program took enormous pride in the fact that their flight log included hours on the Superfortress from Wichita.

There had even been one brief period when Ramp Tramp was employed as an airborne carrier for a Soviet X-plane, the rocket-powered Samolet 346. In May 1947, former German test pilot Wolfgang Ziese took off in the bomber with the 346 attached to its starboard wing. At high altitude, he released the 346, which achieved an estimated speed of Mach 0.93—at that time the most serious effort by the Soviets to break the sound barrier.

But despite a refitting with Shvetsov engines and numerous upgrades, Ramp Tramp was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. By 1954, the Tu-4 fleet was gradually being dismantled, and the U.S. bomber was scrapped along with it. Today, at the Monino air museum outside Moscow, a lone Tu-4 bomber stands outside on display, the sole reminder of a turbulent time.

Stalin’s decision to copy the B-29 allowed the Soviet Union to acquire an interim long-range bomber, if not a true intercontinental strategic weapon. The Tu-4 enabled the Soviets to project power credibly on the front side of the Cold War, at a time when the worsening relations with the United States and the advent of nuclear weapons posed what they perceived as serious threats to their national survival.

There was a second aspect to these events, one less visible to many in the West. The Tu-4 project became the pathway for the rapid modernization of the Soviet aviation industry and gave expression to Stalin’s larger purpose: providing for Soviet national security, even military parity with the West. In the Tu-4 program, Stalin demonstrated a certain truth about the Bolsheviks: Personal ruthlessness did not necessarily preclude shrewdness or a disciplined flair for survival. While his instincts were not always perfect, Stalin nevertheless possessed a remarkable strategic sense—including an eye for the right airplanes—that shaped all his policies.


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