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The Soviet bomber threat

In the early years of the Cold War it was the bomber that held the greatest threat to both sides of the ‘conflict’. We look at the Soviet threat here

The Soviet bombers

When considering how to put this video step together, we thought of the following statements to frame what we wanted to say.

  1. The Soviet nuclear threat was effectively carried by their bomber force well into the 1960s.
  2. Britain operated a quick response force to intercept the bombers.
  3. However, that threat substantially changed with the introduction of the TU-22 and the ability of the SU-27 to escort them in the 1980s.

We would appreciate your thoughts on these and other points from the video in the comments below.

Before we can assess how the RAF transformed throughout the Cold War, we must firstly look at the threat that they were up against.

This step will consider the advances in Soviet technology and aircraft, but more importantly how the RAF responded.

How likely was a Soviet attack on Britain?

Well, in the 1950s and early 1960s, it is essential to stress that the threat from the Soviet Union certainly was a ‘bomber threat’. Neither the Soviets nor the Americans possessed ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) until the end of the 1950s.

After the Second World War the Soviet Union sought to develop its own independent bomber force, where it had largely fallen behind the United States. Early Soviet designs principally came from the capturing and copying of American B-29’s. But why was the B-29 so sought after? As the most expensive single military project of the Second World War – it was a third more expensive that the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb or the German V-2 rocket programme – the B-29 was the most sophisticated bomber in the world in 1945:

B-29 (Boeing B-29 Superfortress)

  • The B-29 was very advanced for the time; some key features included its four machine gun turrets, a fully pressurised cabin, and its ability to fly at very high altitudes to evade other aircraft.
  • Having dropped the first atomic bombs over Japan, it was also regarded as the logical aircraft for the Soviets to copy.
  • Tupolev Tu-4, was the Soviet copy of the B-29 (NATO codename ‘Bull’)

The RAF operated the B-50 (a renamed B-29D) as the Boeing Washington in the early Cold War period. The aircraft recognition video (which is cut into the video in the next step) features two-engine Tupolev Tu-16 ‘Badger’, but the main reason we included that footage was because of the ‘Bear’:

Tupolev Tu-95 (NATO codename ‘Bear’)

As an substantially upgraded version of the Tu-4, the Bear could fly significantly longer distances and carry heavy loads of weapons. It was as perhaps the most iconic Soviet aircraft, and was certainly a powerful symbol of the Cold War age. A Tu-95 was the aircraft used during the infamous Tsar Bomba test, the largest ever nuclear explosion carried out, and all recorded on film. It was an interesting design, having turboprop engines – a jet engine driving a propeller – and counter-rotating propellers at that – as well as a swept wing. The ‘Bear’ is still in service today – the RAF scrambled Eurofighter Typhoons to intercept a TU-95 ‘buzzing’ NATO airspace last year. You can read more about this here.

Just to clarify terms weeks in the video to follow, and a recap on previous weeks, the difference between ‘Free-fall’ and ‘Stand-off’ nuclear weapons are:

  • Free-fall simply means that the bomb is conventionally dropped, unguided, by an aircraft over a specific target;
  • Stand-off weapons, are launched from a significant distance away from the target.

During the early Cold War period, the threat was primarily from free fall nuclear weapons, and so the RAF adopted a defensive strategy accordingly. What we can observe is a two-stage process, in which the RAF could implement their retaliatory strike. Firstly, a team of interceptors that could fly extremely high and fast (examples include the Gloster Meteor, Hawker Hunter, Gloster Javelin, English Electric Lightning); and secondly, the wave of surface-to-air missiles (SAM) long-range to take out the Soviet bomber fleet before it got anywhere close to Britain. An example of this would be the Bristol Bloodhound SAM, which Britain deployed from 1958.

Changes in the late-1960s saw the role of the RAF bomber aircraft change from ‘strategic’ to ‘tactical’, something we cover in Week 5. The great military theorist Carl von Clausewitz described the difference as such:

“tactics is the art of using troops in battle; strategy is the art of using battles to win the war.”

Creation of a more diverse force and execution of ‘point defence’ (the defence of a single object or a limited area, e.g. a ship, building, but in this case the V-force bases) as the only role for fighters is something we will come back to next week.

The Soviet bomber threat evolved through technological advances, such as the development of ICBM’s and sea launched ballistic missiles, which are both harder to defend against, but aircraft also which were now faster and more capable of close engagement fighting. Examples include the Tupolev Tu-22M (Backfire bomber), which is still in service today, most recently being used in bombing raids across Syria. Also, the Sukhoi SU-27 family of jet fighters, which could very effectively escort and defend bombers, changed this late-Cold War landscape, and the threat the RAF had to deal with. The RAF in the 1980s was not well equipped to tackle close-encounter attacks (‘dog fights’), so had to adapt very quickly. As will be explored further a little later, the ability to detect an incoming attack force and the idea of QRA (Quick Response Alert) became vital for the successful defence of Britain throughout the period.

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From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

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