A Brief History
On September 14, 1954, the Cold War warmed up a little when the Soviet Air Force dropped a 40-kiloton atomic bomb from a Tupolev Tu-4, a nearly exact copy of the U.S. Boeing B-29 Superfortress.
The Soviets often relied on technology from the West to further their own development of products and weapons. Joseph Stalin jealously craved a modern heavy bomber of his own, so, when U.S. B-29 bombers made emergency landings on Soviet soil, the bombers were interned by the USSR in spite of American demands that they be promptly returned.
Reverse engineering to simple copy the bombers was not as easy or as quick as it may seem at first, as detailed drawings and diagrams of every part had to be made (over 100,000 drawings). Furthermore, metal alloys used in the B-29 had not been previously used in the USSR, and the bombers had to be built using U.S. measurements (inches, pounds, etc.) whereas the Soviets used the Metric System. Even recreating the thickness of the aluminum alloy sheets was problematic.
Under tremendous pressure, Soviet engineers managed to make a working copy and dubbed it the Tu-4. Some differences did exist, however, such as the use of 23mm cannons in place of the .50 caliber machine guns, different radios, and obviously different IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe) equipment, among others. Anyway, from 1949 to 1952, the Soviets would go on to build a whopping 847 of the bombers that would stay in service until the mid-1960s. Aerial refueling capability was also added to a few of the planes.
The U.S. and NATO war planners were mortified since these bombers could technically reach any destination in Europe and even the interior of the U.S. and especially since the Soviets had also developed an atom bomb of their own in 1949, courtesy of spies such as the Rosenbergs. In fact, the Tu-4 was the first Soviet bomber to drop an atomic (nuclear) bomb, the RDS-1.
Throughout the history of the Soviet Union (USSR), the Soviets had made liberal use of technology they gleaned from the West, either through espionage or from goodwill exchanges of equipment and technology. For example, the jet engines used in the superb MiG-15 jet fighter plane were from the British who had generously provided Rolls-Royce jet engines. When the U.S. and Western Europe was developing Supersonic Transport passenger jets, such as the Concord, the Soviets came up with a suspiciously similar model of their own, jeeringly called “Concordski” by Western wags.
Of course, this “keeping up with the Joneses” philosophy more or less bankrupted the Soviet government and led to the dissolution of the USSR, as the Soviets simply could not afford to continue the arms race. Question for students (and subscribers): What other Western items can you think of that the Soviets copied? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Buttler, Tony and Yefim Gordon. Soviet Secret Projects Bombers Since 1945. Midland Counties Publications, 2004.
Gordon, Yefim. Tupolev Tu-4 Superfortress -Red Star Volume 7. Midland, 2002.
Gordon, Yefim, Dmitriy Komissarov, et al. Tupolev Tu-4: The First Soviet Strategic Bomber. Schiffer Military History, 2014.