The history of low-level flight tactics designed to allow Soviet M-4 and 3M Bison bombers to penetrate NATO’s air defense system
When the Myasishchev design office was reborn in 1951, it was immediately tasked with creating a high-speed strategic bomber to counteract the threat posed by NATO heavy bombers, notably the B-52.
Designated M-4 and codenamed “Bison” by NATO, the new four-jet bomber was developed in an incredibly short time, barely a year. It used many innovative features, including a bicycle landing gear, and was designed around the most powerful jet engine of the time. It became the ancestor of a small family of bombers and refuellers, including the much improved 3M and its versions.
Could the Bison penetrate the “potential adversary” (NATO) air defense system? As explained by Yefim Gordon and Dmitriy Komissarov in their book Myasishchev M-4 and 3M: The First Soviet Strategic Jet Bomber, the many radar pickets, SAM sites and supersonic interceptors stationed in Western Europe and North America left little chance of getting through. even in a first-strike scenario. The six guns of the M-4 would barely offer enough protection. The bomber crew’s only hope lay in the ECM suite and armor protecting the crew from shrapnel.
The notorious downing of Francis Gary Powers’ Lockheed U-2A high-flying spy plane (56-6689) by an S-75 SAM (NATO code name SA-2 Guideline) near Sverdlovsk on May 1, 1960 had put evidence that strategic bombers were no longer invulnerable at high altitudes. However, it soon became apparent that their perceived extreme vulnerability to enemy air defenses was somewhat exaggerated. The United States quickly developed an “anti-SAM tactic” – from 1962 onwards, B-52s were supposed to penetrate enemy SAM barriers at low altitude, where missile guidance radars could not. to follow them. The exercises have shown that low / ultra low level penetration can give a good chance of success. The Soviet Union responded in kind; between January and August 1964, a research program was organized to study the possibility of maximum range flights of the Tu-95 and 3M bombers at 50-200 m (164-660 ft.) in the daytime, when obstacles and the terrain were visible, and 200-300 m (660-980 ft) at night. This low-level tactic greatly increased the chances of single-aircraft penetration of air defense (low-flying formation was excluded – for safety reasons, at least). Of course, low-level turbulence placed additional strain on the airframe, and this is where the Myasishchev bomber had an advantage over the Tu-95 with its flexible wings, which could cope better with turbulence. Another major advantage was the Bison’s lower radar section in the frontal aspect because it was jet propelled; the Tu-95’s propellers significantly increased its radar signature.
However, these low-level flights never got beyond the experimental stage; operational use of this tactic required modification of the aircraft (including the 3M) to withstand low-level turbulence. The Ministry of Aviation Industry (MAP) refused to undertake this work, which ultimately had to be carried out by the Ministry of General Machinery (MOM). The Council of Ministers tasked Viktor N. B Portuguesekiy, who headed branch 1 of MOM’s OKB-52, to include the 3M low-level combat operations program in the task list of the KB-90, headed by V. Gusarov; the work was to take place in January-February 1966. The range of the bomber on a “hi-lo-hi” mission profile decreased considerably, but this was an acceptable price for the reduced vulnerability during air defense penetration. .
Another point to consider is that while the M-4s and 3Ms had their reliability issues, they were much more reliable than contemporary intercontinental ballistic missiles. In addition, unlike ICBMs, strategic bombers were highly mobile, having greater mobility than the ballistic missile submarines that had just arrived on the scene; not only could they be quickly redeployed, but they could be assigned a new target mid-mission if the need arose.
Well, in fact, Bisons were initially only allowed to use a handful of bases with long tracks – Engels-2 AB, Ookrainka AB, Dyagilevo AB (near Ryazan ‘in central Russia), Siauliai (pronounced ‘Shaooliay’; in Lithuania), and Chagan AB (in Kazakhstan). A technique was devised to take off with a reduced fuel load that allowed bombers to be dispersed over virtually any Soviet air base if the possibility of a preemptive strike arose. Service pilots quickly discovered that with a reduced TOW, the M-4 really jumped through the air.
Myasishchev M-4 and 3M: The First Soviet Strategic Jet Bomber is published by Schiffer Publishing and can be ordered here.
Photo Credit: LT Dave Parsons / US Navy