The Red Air Force: 1974 to 1985

The years between 1974 and 1985 brought many changes to the Soviet Union’s Air Force (SAF). Changes that augmented the SAF’s overall combat capability almost to a point of challenging the West invaluable air dominance in the projected battlefield. This was a dramatic shift that caught many Westerns observers by surprise. After decades of overall decay in the SAF’s structural profile, the 1970s ushered as new era in air operational planning. The Kremlin had finally woken to what conventional air power was really about.

Since its creation, the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) had planned to counter the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Warsaw Pact ground and air forces with their high tech air forces. At the front point of this assumption rested the idea that the Western powers could bring heavy concentration of fire to bear with extreme speed and unmatched accuracy at any point in the battle. It was always understood that, even if NATO had the manpower in strategic reserve to counter an all out attack by the Warsaw ground forces, the incorporation of those forces into the defensive forward positions would have taken time. It would not arrive in time to stall a Soviet-lead push into Western Europe. How to contain the Warsaw ground forces from breaking out.

A Tu-95 Bear-C escorted by US Navy F-4s. (photo, via author)

For NATO, air power filled this gap. It offered the ability to strike hard and repeatedly at the choke points along the two Germany’s frontiers where the Warsaw land offensive would have to squeeze through. At the same time, tactical implementation of air power would be projected strategically because a large amount of American tactical aircraft would fly to Europe in the event of an all out attack. The concept of Allied air power holding the front against a Soviet ground incursion, provided there were enough deployed aircraft to do it, was valid and reassuring, especially since the performance of modern tactical Allied aircraft, and the effectiveness and accuracy of their weapons, had climbed exponentially on the back of commercially competitive Western technology to achieve an overall capability undreamt of in term of World War II. Inside NATO’s war planning, this air superiority had long been a comfortable thought of state that many believed that it would endure forever. Bu by the early 1980s, the situation looked different.

Red Air Force combat jet aircraft made its world debuted in the Korean skies during the 1950s affair. By the early 1970, all of those, first generation aircraft, were withdrawn from active service. The second generation of fighters and bombers, originally designed in the late 50s and early 60s, reached its developmental peak in the early 70s.
By the mid 80s, only about 10 to 15 percent of second generation air platforms remained in front line service as the third generation began to assert itself on the overall force structure. Third generation fighters and bombers made their debuted in the early 1970s thus its numbers rose steadily through the decade. It was this generation that gave the Red Air Force a broadly force structure comparable to that of its Western counterparts, although the later were still reckoned to have a margin in detail capability in all aspects, especially where this was dependent on electronics and weapon technology.

A pair of IL-28 Beagle bombers. (photo, via author)

On sheer numbers of available airframes, the Warsaw Pact had always outstripped those of the Allies, in the mid 80s; broad parity in performance was also within its grasp. Added to the equation was the Soviet’s monumental investments in research and development with dwarfed that of all NATO nations combine, with the exception of the US. A fourth generation platform was well under development by the middle of US President Ronald Reagan’s first term. By 1985, the Red AF was in the process of completing pre-evaluation of its fourth generation, air superiority fighter. A platform sorely intended to out maneuver the premier US air superiority aircraft, the vaunted F-15 Eagle. The Soviets were also working on a dedicated V-STOL aircraft for naval operations.
In the summer of 1985, analysis estimated Russian tactical air forces in the western section of the country had increased by 35 percent. The Soviet naval air arm was also climbing. The number of strategic airlift airplanes and attack helicopter quadrupled between 1974 and 1985. In twenty five years, 1970 onward, the Red AF increased their operational scope and war-load capacity by a staggering 1000 percent. The air force progress was as equally impressive as the Red Navy’s. Admiral Gorshkov gets much of the credit, and deservedly so, for the development of the Navy’s Blue Water aspects; but Soviet AF generals are to be praised for the formation of a top rated force.

With its overall new power projection capability, the Red Air Force possessed the capability to venture into the Atlantic and engage NATO’s European targets, including the most important air bridge base in the Continent; the United Kingdom. A though inconceivable in 1970. The new found Red air power could, if the pattern continued for one more decade, have made the deployment of US strategic reserve units into Continental Europe that much difficult, if not impossible. In conclusion, Soviet generals believed that they were just 10 to 15 years away from having a war winning air strategy.

– Raul Colon

Soviet Early Maritime Patrol Aircraft:
The Beriev Bureau’s Role

The early history of the Soviet Union’s maritime patrol aircraft was centered on the once vaunted Beriev Design Bureau which was organized by the famous Georgy M. Beriev. The bureau origins dated to October 1934 when it was organized as the Central Design Bureau of Seaplanes Manufacturing. The bureau was the primary contractor for some of the Soviet Union’s Second World War seaplanes designs including the massive MDR-5 long range maritime reconnaissance platform as well as the MDR-7. Neither design made it out of the mockup stage. There were other wartime designs that, although very promising, never made it out of its conceptual stages. One that did make it was the MDR-10 flying boat. After the war, the MDR-10 program was renamed the LL-143 project. The double Ls refer to Letayushchaya Lodka or flying boats. The 143 was to be powered by two powerful Shvetsov ASh72 piston engines. Construction of the first two prototype planes commenced at Factory 477 in Krasnoyarsk in 1944. A year later, the first completed aircraft was transported to Taganrog where in September 6th 1945 it made its maiden flight. By next February, the Beriev Bureau move its design and developing operations to Taganrog. In June 1945, the bureau became the State Union Experimental Plant No. 49. Plant No. 49 became the USSR’s only research and developing facility dedicated to the design and production of flying boats. Georgy M. Beriev became the new organization’s first director that summer.

Following the advances made during the Great Patriotic War, the bureau began to modify the blueprints of the second LL-143 model. The new design featured the introduction of the advance ASh73 engines as well as a new inboard radar system. The new aircraft, now renamed the be-6, took to the air for the first time in the morning hours of June 2nd 1948. This model quickly became the standard measure of every Beriev design. The next version of the seaplane, the Be-6M was able to carry a powerful set of offensive weapon systems such as a five cannon arrangement, plus its assortment of free-fall bombs, mines and torpedoes. The Be-6, codename Madge by NATO forces, production run lasted between the years 1952 to 1957. A total 123 aircraft were delivered. The next Beriev design was a 1948’s proposal codenamed Be-10. The 10’s design was similar to the Be-6. The only appreciated difference between the two crafts was that the Be-10 would have posed a tricycle undercarriage for ground operations. The Be-10 never made it out of the blueprint stage.

As aviation began to shift from propeller-driven aircraft to the new jet engine flying machines, so did Beriev’s designs. The fist all jet Beriev design was the revolutionary R-1 platform. The bureau’s experimentation with jet engines actually commenced during the later stages of development of the Be-6 platform. In 1947, and with official authorization, Beriev designed a seaplane based on the powerful British Nene jet engine. The R-1 would have the engines mounted on the upper wing structure in order to keep the engines clear of water spray when splashdown is performed. On June 1948, the soviet Ministry of Defense (SovMin) gave the official order to proceed with the program. The program continued its progression, although at a slower pace, until June 1950 when the project was revised completely. The new design would now incorporate the Soviet-built VK-1 jet engines. The aircraft’s first mockup was completed in the summer of 1951 and the first prototype was finished by the middle of 1951. On November 22nd 1951, the R-1 commenced its first set of taxi trials. The trial revealed a new phenomenon affecting seaplanes fitted with jet engines. The Hydro-dynamic Instability Barrier Effect which made the R-1 suffered severed porpoising at nearly 80% of the take-off speed. The problem was semi-corrected (it was brought to a manageable level) with modifications to the plane’s elevator and tailplane compensation mechanism. Taxing testing resumed in April 1952 and in May 30th, it took to the air for the first time. The R-1 flew several times before an October 3rd incident when water poured into the jet engine nuzzles during an attempted take-off. Although the damage was repaired, this incident put the whole program in the spotlight. Calls were beginning to come from many quarters supporting the cancellation of the entire R-1 program. Nevertheless, the program continued and on July 18th 1953, flight testing resumed. The final R-1 test flight came on February 1956 when the only prototype was severely damage during a landing operation. The program was cancelled soon afterward. Although the program was considered a failure by high ranking Soviet officials, the program did collected valuable data related to the performance of a sea-based aircraft utilizing jet engines for propulsion, data that would find its way to others Beriev’s seaplanes.

Next for the bureau was the R-2 program, a project that did not make it out of the designing board. After the R-2 came the Be-10 program which would incorporate the data recollected on the R-1 aircraft. The 10 was first conceived as a reconnaissance/strike flying boat capable to engaging enemy vessels. The program commenced in earnest on October 8th 1953 when the commander of the Soviet Naval Aviation, Admiral of the Fleet NG Kuznetsov, supported a SovMin resolution ordering the development of a long range reconnaissance platform. From the beginning, the Be-10 was designed primarily as a major offensive flying-boat. The Be-10’s offensive arsenal was carried on a massive bomb-bay with doors on the bottom of the aircraft’s hull, behind the step. A moderate, sweepback wing structure was introduced on the new plane. The first prototype was completed by October 1955. Because of the upcoming winter conditions on the Taganrog area, the new plane was not able to perform any taxing test. The aircraft was moved to a new, more plausible testing site at Gelendzhik. The Be-10 performed its maiden flight on the afternoon of June 20th 1956. The testing phase went without a glitch and by the middle of 1958 the Soviet Navy placed an order for fifty of these huge seaplanes. The production line of the Be-10 ran between 1958 and the spring of 1961. In all, twenty seven fully equipped aircraft were delivered. When the aircraft entered service in the summer of 1959, it had the distinction of being the world’s only jet-powered operational seaplane, an honor it would enjoy for years. The Be-10 or Mallow as codenamed by NATO was finally retired from front line service in August 1963. The reason was poor structural conditioning. In fact, by mid 1963, two of the 10s crashed with heavy loss of life. The follow-on plane to the Be-10 would be the Be-10N. The 10N was designed with a much larger payload capacity in order to carry two of the new K-12BS anti-ship cruise missiles. The missiles were capable of carrying either conventional or nuclear tipped warheads. The 10N would have been able to take-off with a maximum weight of 106,920lb. Its operational range was designed to be nearly 1000 nautical miles. Nevertheless, the 10N design never made it out of the mockup stages. By August 1960, the SovMin cancelled further research into this new version of the Be-10.

The bureau next design, the Be-12 would make it out of the design table. The 12 was original conceived as a pure attack aircraft. To achieve the plane’s profile, several new additions were implemented on the design. Chief among them was the incorporation of a new, more powerful Initsiativa radar array system. The seaplane was also fitted with a detection and sighting mechanism, a powerful magnetometer, a sonobuoys system, an anti-submarine weapons array that includes the latest on Soviet torpedoes and depth charges. Work commenced on the new plane in the spring of 1958. The 12 developing stage took, from the design table to the tarmac, four full years, reflecting the program’s complexity. On the afternoon of October 18th 1960, the sole Be-12 prototype took to the air on its first flight. The aircraft performed flawlessly. The 12 was very similar, aerodynamically, to the early Be-6. The fuselage was longer and it posses a ground undercarriage for tarmac operations. The SovMin approved the full production of the Be-12 in December 1960. A total of 143 units were built by the Beriev Bureau between the spring of 1963 and the summer of 1973. The 12, NATO codename Mail, became operational with the Soviet Navy in the spring of 1964. The plane became the mainstay of the Naval Aviation anti-submarine effort from it achieved full operational status.

The success of the Be-12 did not translate on the next Beriev’s designs. In the autumn of 1962, the bureau began to conceive a design for a heavy load, long range seaplane intended sorely for anti-submarine warfare. No name was giving to this “new” project. But there were few data bits related to this so-called effort. The new design would have carried four Kuznetsov NK12-M turboprop engines, supplemented by two Lyulka AL7-PB jet engines for short take-off assistance. Although the “program” never even made it to the design table, the plane’s profile would become the cornerstone of a massive effort called Project LL-600. The LL-600 program called for the seaplane to shift its profile from a pure anti-submarine/reconnaissance platform to a bomber or even a commercial airliner profile. The project proved to be too ambitious and it was cancelled by the middle of the 1960s.

By the winter of 1963, preliminary studies were made inside the Soviet Union regarding the feasibility of developing a long range, heavy payload seaplane capable of operating equally from water and land. In fact, the studies suggested a type of Short Take-Off air platform. A huge leap in technology, but one that Beriev’s engineering team believes that it could accomplish. The Be-26, as the program was codenamed, would be fitted with sixteen RD-35-36 lift jet engines. Eight of them per side in clusters around the wing root leading and trailing edges. The 26 would also be able to refuel from surfacing submarines or air tankers, extending the aircraft’s operational range. The numbers that Beriev’s team began to put out about the 26 capability profile were impressive. The seaplane would operate at a top service ceiling of 42,651ft with a top operational range of 7,272 nautical miles. Notwithstanding these impressive figures, the Be-26 proved to be too technical challenging and the program never made it out of the drawing board.

There were two other projects worth mentioned regarding Beriev’s relationship with early Soviet seaplane development. They are the impressive A-150 design and the more practical A-40 program. The 150 would have been a massive, delta wing shaped seaplane capable of being a true multi-role seaplane. The 150 would have delivered a powerful punch. It would have been a reconnaissance platform as well as a search and rescue vessel, an anti-sub and anti-ship platform and a deep penetration bomber. Just like the Be-26, this design would have STOL capabilities. But, as with the 26, the technical implications were too high at the time, so the project was abandoned. The A-40 program was another story. In 1976 the Beriev bureau began to research the feasibility of designing a next generation anti-submarine seaplane. In 1983, Soviet Government chief Designer AK Konstantinov issued an order to Beriev to proceed, officially, with the program. The A-40 was conceived as a replacement for the now venerable Be-12 and even to replace the Ilyushin Il-38 maritime patrol aircraft. The 40 mission profile called for it to perform reconnaissance and anti-submarine and shipping operations in medium range areas. The aircraft was to be powered by two Soloviev D30KPV jet engines supplemented by two Klimov RD60Ks engines. Two of these aircraft were eventually built. The first unit took to the air on December 1986. It was revealed to the world at the Tushino Air Show in august 1989. Codenamed Mermaid by NATO officials, the A-40 began a slight transformation phase which culminated in 2002 with the delivered of the first A-42 version. The 42 is be powered by a D-27a profane engines and it had a more powerful avionics package than its predecessor.

With the delivering of the A-42, the Beriev Bureau ceased to be the more important player in now Russia’s seaplane development programs. The mantle was now in the Tupolev’s Bureau hands.

– Raul Colon


Beriev Be-10 “Mallow” – Russia’s Last Flying Boat, Aleksandr Zablotskiy, International Air Power Review Vol. 8, 2003
Russian X-Planes, Alan Dawes, Key Publishing 2001
Soviet Seaplane Jet Bombers, Thomas Mueller and Jens Baganz, Aerospace Projects Review, July-August 2003

Latest Russian Air Force Bomber

The end of the Cold War and the new financial realities within the Russian Federation in the early 1990s, accelerated the decommissioning, and eventual termination of large portions of the former Soviet Union’s Strategic Bomber Force on-going development programs. In addition to these cutbacks, new aircraft development programs have been dramatically cutback and the aircraft industry itself no longer reflects the one that dominated Soviet society from the late 1940s onward. Nevertheless, studies into future bomber developments have continued, although relatively little information has so far, been made available to the general public regarding Russia’s newest bomber designs. The following is a partial view of some of the work that the Soviet Union undertook since the early 1980s. But, as with all related aircraft design information, it’s difficult to verify if any of these programs are still active today. In the early 1990s, the Mikoyan Bureau commenced a research study into a hypersonic, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, which may also have being given the designation of bomber. The Mikoyan 301, as the type was designated, could had flown at speeds of over Mach 3.5 utilizing special hybrid power plant that would operate in flight as a ram jet engine. To cope with the built up of heat friction, the 301 was designed to be built completely out of an new stainless steel alloy. The aircraft’s concept design was able to take-off with a maximum weight of 176,367lb. A variable geometry wing was to be employed in the design. By the end of the 1990s and the beginning of a new century, work on this spectacular design probably would had been shelved or at best, moving on a much slower pace than original conceived by Soviet, and then Russian authorities.

The next generation Russian bomber could very well have been the incredible Sukhoi T-60S. Few, if any, detail have surfaced of this design. What it is known is that the T-60S was conceived as a supersonic, stealth heavy bomber. Re-heat wouldn’t have been fitted to the aircraft, as the plane was supposedly able to supersonically cruise at high altitude on dry power, and its weapon system platform would have included cruise missiles, second generation precision guided conventional munitions and free-fall nuclear weapons. Some have speculated that this aircraft in fact entered full scale development in early 1990, but the subsequence collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, prevented any additional work on the project. In the summer of 1998 it was widely reported that the project was still ongoing as a possible replacement for the Tu-16 and Tu-22M bombers.

From the early 1980s onward, the Tupolev Design Bureau began to look for a potential successor to its successful Tu-160 bomber platform. The end result of these studies produced a pair of hypersonic aircraft projects. The first, designated Aircraft 260, was, from 1983 forward, intended to fly at Mach 4 at an operational ceiling of 83,000 ft and was to have an un-refuelled range of 6,215 miles. This aircraft was proposed to be powered by four Soloviev D80 jet engines mounted in a side-by-side configuration beneath a double delta wing configuration. The aircraft would have had a relatively flat main fuselage. There was to be no tail-plane on this new bomber, just a single tall fin. Its fully-loaded take off weight was around 396,825lb. A preliminary design project was completed by the fall of 1985. The next hypersonic plane design to surface in relation with Tupolev’s future design program was Aircraft 360. It had a similar layout to the 260 project, but was bigger and supposedly capable of speeds in excess of Mach 6 with an un-refuelled range of 9,323 miles. It could carry a massive bomb load of 22,046lb. Aerodynamics studies suggested that with a constant cruise speed of Mach 6, the aircraft would lose about three thousand miles in operational range. To obtain this incredible speed, the installed engines would need to utilize cryogenic fuel cells and, as a result, six hydrogen-powered units were intended to be fitted; all of them “variable cycle” types that could operated in both a turbojet and ramjet environment. There were to be two crewmen and the aircraft bomb load was to be carried in two wing root bomb bays. The design development program also envisioned the flight testing of a scale model plane weighting around 176,367lb, but the project was terminated in the fall of 1992 after some fuselage and fuel system parts had already been manufactured. Again, the program termination was in great part due to the strained financial situation in Russia

It’s also believed that Tupolev’s designers began work on a subsonic flying wing bomber concept as early as the mid 1980s, designated Aircraft 202, and with research still ongoing during the late 1990s, it was hoped by the design team that a version of this aircraft might actually reach hardware development status in the early 2000s. The aircraft was given a temporary designation of B-90, which stood for Bomber of the 1990s and the project was visualized as an intercontinental strike heavy bomber aircraft replacement for the aging Tu-95M Bear bomber fleet. But as with many of these exceptional designs, financing was a major problem and the project was cancelled in the early 2000s.

– Raul Colon


1. Aircraft of OKB Tupolev, Vladimir Rigmant, Moscow Russavia 2001
2. Soviet X-Planes, Yefim Gordon & Bill Gunston, Midland Publishing 2000
3. Russian Aviation and Air Power in the Twentieth Century, Edit Robin Higman, John T. Greenwood & Von Hardesty, Frank Cass 1998