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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
ROSS MAHONEY: Welcome back. So in this section, we’re going to talk about the threat that Britain faced, so looking at it from the enemy’s perspective, for the lack of a better term, the other side of the hill, as some historians might put it. So, Emmett, could you tell us something about the threat that Britain faced, certainly up until the 1960s from the Soviet Union? DR.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: What we see is the Soviet Union developing its own independent bomber force. First off, they capture a number of B-29s and copy those. But more substantially, we see the TU4 and then a number of other jet bombers coming on stream. The TU95 Bear is probably the most iconic Soviet aircraft, a turboprop swept wing aircraft, which is still in service now. So rather like the RAF and the United States Air Force, we’re seeing the strategy of high flying, long range bombers looking to threaten targets in Britain. Initially, with free fall nuclear weapons, but eventually we stand off nuclear weapons as well.
So really, what we’re seeing is certainly through most of the ’50s and to the early ’60s is that the Soviet threat really is a bomber threat. The time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, they only had four operational intercontinental ballistic missiles. And while they did have a substantial force of shorter range missiles, the bomber fleet was really quite key to what the Soviets were trying to achieve in threatening the West with nuclear weapons. DR.
ROSS MAHONEY: And just say a little bit how the Royal Air Force responds to that perceived threat, especially in terms of defending the V-Bomber bases and the suchlike. DR.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: We tend to see a two-stage process. Remember that the V-Bomber force was a retaliatory force. So the key objective was to allow them to get into the air before any Soviet bombers took out their bases. So firstly, we would have dedicated interceptors– aircraft which were designed specifically to get into the air as quickly as possible, fly as high as possible, as fast as possible with purely the intention of releasing their weapon load of the bombers and returning to base for refuelling and probably go through the same sortie again. Now we see this with the Meteor, the Hunter, the Javelin behind us, but most obviously with the Lightning.
And we’ll perhaps talk about this a little bit later in the course. The second wave is surface to air missiles– long range missiles from the late 1950s designed to take out the Soviet bomber force before it gets anywhere near Britain’s defences. Now in the 1960s, towards the end of the 1960s, we start seeing a slight change in strategy as the role of the Air Force as a bombing force moves from, quote, “strategic” to, quote, “tactical.” And certainly, the repurposing of the Royal Navy Phantoms and the re-designation of the RAF Phantoms to be interceptors gave a more diverse source. But we then see the development of something which is perhaps a little unusual at the time. The Tornado air defence variant.
And again, we’ll come back to that a little bit later, the reason being that it was argued that it wasn’t a great improvement on the aircraft that replaced the Phantom, but it did a slightly different job and with more sophisticated technology. And that’s the idea of point defence. DR.
ROSS MAHONEY: OK, so how does the Soviet bomber threat evolve? Because of course, the Soviets introduced intercontinental ballistic missiles, sea-launched ballistic missiles, which of course is very difficult to defend against. What about the bomber threat? DR.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Well, there’s a number of thoughts in that regard. Firstly, we’re a major maritime nation. So as well as attacking Britain’s cities, the bomber force may be targeted from the Soviet Union to destroy our shipping. So we actually need to think about how best to cover large areas to make sure that we’ve got the best technology available. The key development is the advent of the Backfire bomber in the 1960s and particularly its deployment in the 1970s. Could fly faster than the speed of sound, jet bomber with a variable geography capability.
And added to that in the 1980s with the Sukhoi SU-27, you actually had a very capable combat aircraft which potentially could come in and escort bombers into British airspace. Now at that point, the idea of engaging with rapidly purely with the bomber force in an interceptor role changes because you now have to start thinking about whether there’s going to be an, if you like it, a close engagement or dog fighter role. And the RAF in the 1980s was not necessarily well equipped to cover that role. But the air defence variant of the Tornado, with its technology, could track targets many miles away and release its missile load to destroy them before they got anywhere near Britain.
So the idea of having combat air patrols really is something that operates during wartime. But the persistence of a quick response alert, if you like, something that’s akin to the Second World War scrambling of fighters was the principle way to be ever-vigilant, early warning, purchasing of the Sentry aircraft from America to replace the Shackletons in that role, and having crews on quick alert standby so that they could actually get into the air very quickly and to meet any threat that’s being flown in. DR.
ROSS MAHONEY: So that’s the threat that Britain faces. What we’ll start to look shortly is how the RAF prepared to face that threat. Emmett’s already mentioned QRA , which we’ll go into a little bit more detail, and also the important shift in Britain’s defence network in the UK. So more on that shortly.

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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