Few aircraft have as great a history as the B-29, an American pencil-shaped four-engine heavy bomber that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A strategic bomber is a large aircraft that can carry heavy bombs over great distances, to hit strategic targets behind enemy lines such as factories, bridges, culverts, airfields, railways, or even urban centers. By World War II, however, the Soviet Air Force was primarily a tactical air force, focused on hitting targets near the front lines. The Soviet Air Force had only 93 new four-engine Pe-8 strategic bombers, while Britain and the United States deployed thousands of heavy bombers.
America’s most expensive weapons program of World War II, the B-29 Superfortress, a state-of-the-art strategic bomber. The B-29 outperformed its predecessors in speed, range and bomb payload. The aircraft had defensive remotely controlled machine gun turrets and a crew of 11 people.
New B-29s were deployed to the Pacific theater starting in 1944. Its great range allowed it to carry out attacks on the main Japanese islands, including the fierce bombings of Tokyo, and culminating in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the time, the Soviet Union was receiving planes from the United States through the Lend-Lease program. In 1940, Moscow twice asked the US to send them B-29s, but Washington refused.
Eager for a quick new strategic bomber, Stalin instructed the Tupolev Design Bureau to abandon its own design program, and instead create a copy of the B- 29. One captured B-29 was completely scrapped, while the other two were used for research and training purposes. As many as sixty design offices and nine hundred different Soviet factories were involved in this copying process.
The cloned aircraft, dubbed the Tu-4, was only slightly heavier than the original B-29 and had a few differences. Most notably, the Tu-4 used ASh-73TK radial piston engines with 2,400 hp instead of the original Duplex Cyclone turbosupercharged radial piston engines with 2,200 hp. In addition, the B-29’s 12.7 mm machine guns was replaced by a much heavier 23 mm NS-23 aircraft cannon.
The Tu-4 was slightly slower than the B-29. It only reached a top speed of 560 km/h compared to 574 km/h of B-29, but the Soviet aircraft had a better service ceiling, 12,000 m compared to 10,200 m of B-29. The standard bomb load was also different, the B-29 could carry up to 9 tons of bombs, while that of the Tu-4 was 6 tons.
The Soviet Union then returned one of the B-29s in 1945. Two years later, the West was startled to see images of four replica B-29s in the sky. NATO code-named the plane “Bull” and urgently had to plan to deal with the new Soviet strategic bomber threat. The first Tu-4 regiments entered service in 1949. Two years later, a modified Tu-4A became the first Soviet aircraft to drop an atomic bomb. The atomic bomb RDS-3 Marya with a yield of 42 kilotons was dropped near the city of Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan on October 18, 1951.
A total of 847 Tu-4s were built by 1952 and became the mainstay of the Soviet strategic bomber force during the early years of the Cold War. However, the Tu-4 did not have enough range to hit targets in the US and return to base. By the mid-1950s, the Tu-4 began to be replaced by the Tu-16 Badger, which was powered by turbofan engines, and the Tu-95 Bear with a longer range. The last Tu-4s were retired by the Soviet Union in the 1960s.
The decommissioned Tu-4s were used to test new technologies. The Tu-4 was used to test aerial refueling, electronic warfare and radiation reconnaissance. These studies were then applied to the Tu-70 and Tu-75 transport aircraft. More than 300 Tu-4s were converted into Tu-4D military transport aircraft.
Stalin gave 10 Tu-4s to China in 1953, which operated until 1988. The Chinese Air Force even tried converting two to serve as its first early warning aircraft. Several Chinese Tu-4s can now be seen at the China Air Force Museum. The B-29 proved to be an adaptable platform in both American and Soviet operations. Once again, the experience of the Soviet Union has also demonstrated that the technological differences between them and the West are also very easily balanced.