Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
Teaser Image


Title: Surrendered MiG-15 aircraft
Button: Click to display an enlarged version of the image.
Having benefited greatly from the technological leaps made during World War II, aircraft emerged as vital military, political, and socialization tools for both sides of the Cold War divide. Fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft were developed and fielded at a phenomenal pace and emerged as key components of geopolitical policies and ambitions.

The close of World War II saw the beginning of the end of the era of piston-powered fighter aircraft, as both Germany and Great Britain fielded jet-powered aircraft in combat. Building largely on German research, both the United States and the USSR unveiled seminal jet-powered models in the years immediately after the war. Soviet production began with the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 Fagot, of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) designation, that saw service in 1948 and stunned U.S. pilots in the early days of the Korean War. The MiG-15's primary U.S. counterpart in the skies above the Korean Peninsula was the North American F-86 Sabre, which utilized the latest in swept-wing technology and could achieve transonic speeds in level flight while protecting American pilots through the use of the first production aircraft ejector seats. Although the F-86 was marginally inferior to its Soviet nemesis, the model enjoyed stunning success in Korea due largely to the superior training and tactics of American pilots over their Soviet and Chinese counterparts.

Although test pilot Chuck Yeager had piloted the Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis through the sound barrier in 1947, the title of the world's first truly supersonic war-fighting machine resided with America's next production model jet fighter, the F-100 Super Sabre. Debuting in 1954 as the first in the Century series of U.S. fighters, the Super Sabre can be more accurately labeled as an interceptor/fighter/bomber.

Utilizing two Tumanskii turbojets to reach Mach 1.36 speed, the MiG-19 Farmer became the first supersonic fighter produced outside the United States when it entered service in 1955. The MiG-19 saw extensive use during Vietnam and the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973. Plans for the MiG-19 were also exported to China, where by the late 1950s the model was produced by the Shenyang Aircraft Factory for the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) under the designation of J-6.

France's ability to keep pace in the Cold War's rapidly evolving fighter industry was maintained almost solely by designs fielded by the firm of Marcel Dassault. The Buchenwald survivor's Mystère II joined the Armée de l'Air in 1954 and after only a year's time was joined by the Mystère IV. The latter model was also exported to Israel, where it quickly saw action against Egyptian MiG-15s during the 1956 Suez Crisis.

Britain's entry into the realm of the supersonic fighter began with the English Electric (later British Aircraft Corporation) Lightning, which Fighter Command declared operational in 1959. The single-seat Lightning's distinctive, vertically stacked engine configuration allowed the aircraft to reach speeds that would break the then-current air-speed record of Mach 1.72 during flight testing in 1957. The idiosyncratic design would also prove to be the model's downfall, however, as the twin engines left scant room in the fuselage for fuel, limiting the Lightning to a range of under two hours.

The U.S. Navy responded to the demands and restraints of carrier-based flight by continuing to employ piston-powered fighters well after the land-based services had switched to jet power. Models such as the Vought F4U Corsair and Douglas AD Skyraider saw action during the Korean War, and the versatile Skyraider remained operational in Vietnam into the 1970s. Naval turbojet models were produced beginning in the mid-1950s, most notably with the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk and F4D (later F-6) Skyray, the navy's first supersonic jet.

Title: F-4 Phantom II formation
Button: Click to display an enlarged version of the image.
The navy caught up with its land-based contemporaries with the 1961 service debut of the McDonnell (later McDonnell-Douglas) F-4 Phantom II, which proved so successful that the U.S. Air Force began land-based use of the F-4C model in 1963. The Phantom became the premier U.S. fighter/bomber in Vietnam after 1965, providing air cover for and later replacing the less capable F-100s and F-105s. F-4s notched the first air-to-air kills against the North Vietnamese Air Force for both the U.S. Navy and Air Force in June and July 1965, respectively, by downing MiG-17s over Gen Phu and Hanoi.

The United States also exported the F-4 in large numbers to ten allied countries, most notably Australia, Britain, Israel, Iran, Japan, South Korea, and West Germany. In all, approximately 1,000 airframes were sent abroad, complementing a tally of more than 4,000 for domestic use and making the Phantom the most-produced Western fighter aircraft in the postwar period.

Although prolific by any standard, F-4 production numbers were dwarfed by the MiG-21 Fishbed, which entered Soviet service in 1959 and was produced by the USSR, several Warsaw Pact countries, India, and China in numbers exceeding 10,000 units over the next forty years. With a length of 51 feet 8 inches and a wingspan of only 23 feet 5 inches, the Fishbed was much more compact than any of its contemporary Western adversaries. Although its size limited the aircraft's range, its light weight allowed speeds surpassing Mach 2 and provided the first successful fighter and interceptor combination in the Soviet air fleet. The PLAAF also made extensive use of the Fishbed (designated J-7) after it was licensed by the Soviets in 1961. Although early production numbers were kept low by deteriorating Sino-Soviet relations, production of the delta-winged fighter began again in earnest in the late 1970s and early 1980s and continued to the conclusion of the Cold War.

Taking on the true interceptor role was the MiG-25 Foxbat, which entered service in 1970 specifically to counter the threat of Mach 3 U.S. bombers that, although they never came into existence, were presupposed to be the next logical step in aircraft development on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Although the MiG-25 could generate enough thrust to propel the aircraft to speeds upwards of Mach 3.2, unknown outside Soviet circles, structural limitations meant that reaching speeds higher than Mach 2.8 would almost certainly result in complete engine failure. Also unknown to the West at the time was that the Foxbat had negligible maneuverability and close combat potential; thus, Western air analysts found themselves presented with an aircraft that they assumed could beat all challengers. This scare, later proven to have been unfounded, resulted in increased research and development into what would become the F-15 and F-16 programs.

The early 1970s saw a flurry of fighter deliveries to both camps in their efforts to maintain an edge in air superiority. The MiG-23 Flogger and its eponymous ground attack counterpart, the MiG-27, entered service in 1973 and 1975, respectively. In the United States, 1972 marked the operational introduction of the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, which, when coupled with the newly designed AIM-54 Phoenix missile, provided the U.S. Navy with a formidable interceptor. The F-14 would prove a major success worthy of replacing the aging F-4. The F-14 also became the premier Iranian fighter.

January 1976 saw the first delivery of an operational McDonnell-Douglas (later Boeing) F-15 Eagle, which set the standard in tactical fighter design through the closing years of the Cold War. The Eagle amassed an enviable no-loss record in air-to-air engagements, most often in the hands of Israeli pilots fighting Syrian-flown MiGs. Following on the heels of the F-15 were the General Dynamics (later Lockheed-Martin) F-16 Fighting Falcon in 1979 and the U.S. Navy's McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18 Hornet in 1983.

With the skyrocketing costs of modern fighters, some West European countries decided to keep pace with U.S. advancements by combining research and funding. The result of a consortium among Britain, Italy, and Germany was the Panavia Tornado, a multirole combat aircraft (MRCA) that first flew in 1974 and would enter service in its interdiction and strike configuration with each of its sponsor nations as well as in an air defense variation in Britain. Dassault Aviation maintained its primacy within the French aerospace industry when its futuristically named Mirage 2000 gained operational status with the Armée de l'Air in 1983.

Both the 1983 Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrum and the 1986 Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker were developed out of the Soviet-advanced tactical fighter initiative, which called for direct counterparts to fourth-generation U.S. aircraft. Although potentially equal in raw technical capability to the U.S. models, the Fulcrum and Flanker were costly to produce and effected limited results in combat, due largely to the widening gulf in pilot proficiency between the East and the West.

As the Soviet military had concentrated almost exclusively on tactical airpower during World War II, at the end of the conflict the Allies had a near total monopoly on strategic bombers. Foremost among these was the venerable Boeing B-29 Superfortress, which had been employed solely in the Pacific theater and was best known for the delivery, by the Enola Gay, of the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima in August 1945. The B-29 continued active service throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, most notably as President Harry S. Truman's nuclear ace against the Soviets during the Berlin Blockade as well as during the Korean War. The Superfortress proved so successful, in fact, that Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered clones produced by reverse engineering from those that had been forced to land in Soviet territory in 1945. The resultant aircraft, known as the Tupolev Tu-4 Bull, entered service in 1949 as the Soviet Air Force's first nuclear-capable bomber and was rumored to be true to its American antecedent right down to the bullet holes found in one of the recovered B-29s.

The Soviets were not content to see the United States maintain heavy bomber superiority. One of the first designs was the Tupolev Tu-14, a twin-engine jet aircraft of traditional appearance produced from 1947 in a variety of models and remaining in service until the 1960s. The first successful Soviet bomber design, however, was the superb twin-engine Ilyushin Il-28 Beagle, which first appeared in prototype in 1948. It remained in first-line service for some twenty years and flew in the service of the People's Republic of China (PRC) throughout the Cold War. It was the counterpart to the British Canberra and U.S. North American B-45. More than 10,000 Il-28 bombers were built and distributed to Soviet bloc nations. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) obtained a number of Il-28s from the Soviets and flew them against the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) at the beginning of the Korean War in June 1950.

The first Soviet giant bomber was the huge Myasishchev Mya-4 Bison swept-wing turbojet bomber, developed on the orders of Stalin beginning in 1949 as a plane that could reach the United States and return to base. It first became known to the West in 1955 when, much to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's satisfaction, a scheme of repeatedly flying the limited stock of Mya-4 Bisons over the reviewing stand at the Moscow air show achieved its desired effect: U.S. military leaders within the Strategic Air Command (SAC) loudly pronounced the need for increased funding to reduce the so-called bomber gap. Such pessimistic claims were later found to have as much to do with SAC self-aggrandizement as with actual Soviet capabilities. The Bison entered service in 1956, but only about 150 Mya-4s were produced. The Bison was, in fact, a strategic white elephant with a maximum range of 7,700 miles, far short of intercontinental round-trip flight. Bisons were, in fact, employed largely as tanker and reconnaissance aircraft.

More successful was its turboprop contemporary, the Tu-95 Bear of 1955. Conspicuously employing four sets of 18-foot diameter contrarotating propellers, the Bear was the world's fastest propeller-driven aircraft, capable of cruising speeds of more than 500 mph. It had a range of 9,000 miles with a payload of up to 25,000 pounds. The Bear was intended as a nuclear bomber.

This design was countered by the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. This phenomenal aircraft joined SAC in 1955 and become the enduring long-range strategic bomber of the U.S. fleet throughout the entire Cold War. Continued upgrades allowed the B-52 to continue as the workhorse U.S. strategic bomber into the twenty-first century. With a range of 8,800 miles, the B-52 could carry a phenomenal 40,000 pounds of bombs or missiles. B-52s played a leading role in the Vietnam War, flying in direct support of ground forces in South Vietnam and, in December 1972, bombing Hanoi and Haiphong. In January 1991 a B-52H flew nonstop from Louisiana to Baghdad to drop cruise missiles and return, the longest bombing mission in history.

After successfully developing a nuclear weapon in 1952, Great Britain sought to maintain parity with the two superpowers by fielding a series of nuclear-capable bombers, known collectively as the V-bombers. The sequence began with the Vickers Valiant in 1955, which released Britain's first airdropped nuclear weapon in a test over Australia in 1956. The Valiant was followed in quick succession by the Vulcan and Victor, although the V-bombers lost their strategic role to the Royal Navy's Polaris submarines as early as 1968. Indeed, the only bombs dropped in anger by the later models came well after the series had lost its nuclear mandate when, in 1982, Vulcans were enlisted to bomb the Falkland Islands, with Victors providing aerial refueling support en route.

The 1956 arrival of the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, a dedicated aerial refueling aircraft, meant that strategic bombers had ranges limited only by crew fatigue. In accordance with the policy of mutual assured destruction (MAD), SAC Commander General Curtis LeMay kept a certain number of nuclear-equipped B-52s airborne at all times. Given their now seemingly limitless range, the sole remaining hindrance to bomber dominance was the ability to avoid interception by enemy fighters or antiaircraft missiles. In response, both sides in the Cold War shifted their attention to speed in the 1960s and 1970s, often with limited results. The first to arrive was the Mach 2 Tu-22M Backfire that, like its MiG-23 and Su-17 fighter counterparts, used variable-geometry wings to achieve high-speed, low-level flight. Variable geometry was also used on the Rockwell (later Boeing) B-1B Lancer that, although originally conceived in 1965, took twenty years to emerge from its incubation period, the A-model having been shelved entirely in 1977. Even less timely was the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, which made its inopportune entrance on 17 July 1989 and shortly thereafter, with the end of the Cold War, lost its primary adversary and mission while racking up a final cost of more than $2.2 billion per airframe.

The bomber gap and the later missile gap reinforced America's need for actionable intelligence in the form of aerial espionage. To this end, President Dwight D. Eisenhower requested what came to be known as the Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady in 1954, and the plane conducted its first operational mission on 4 July 1956 by overflying Leningrad and Moscow. Overflights of Soviet airspace continued until 1 May 1960, when a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Sverdlovsk. In 1966 Lockheed followed the U-2 with the remarkable SR-71 Blackbird, which continues to hold the world speed record of 2,193 mph. Both planes enjoyed operational lives spanning the remainder of the Cold War.

The primary British contribution to the reconnaissance effort came in the form of the Hawker-Siddeley (later BAe Systems) Nimrod, which was derived from the de Havilland Comet airliner and began service in 1969 in maritime signals intelligence and antisubmarine roles.

Soviet efforts at a dedicated aerial reconnaissance platform emerged only after Powers's downing in the form of the Yakovlev Yak-25RD Mandrake, which entered into service in April 1963 and achieved only limited success. More frequently used by the Soviets were reconnaissance-adapted fighters and bombers, including the Tu-95, Tu-160, MiG-21, and MiG-25.

Despite the often hot engagements between pilots on either side of the Cold War divide, the first post–World War II test for Western airpower came not in the form of outright battle but rather in an uneasy test of resolve between Stalin and Truman over the Berlin Blockade and subsequent airlift beginning in June 1948. Operation vittles and its British counterpart plainfare began on 26 June when eighty U.S. Air Force Douglas C-47 Gooney Bird cargo planes lifted milk, flour, and medicine to the citizens of Berlin. With a maximum load capacity of just three tons, the twin-engine C-47 could not carry the goods necessary for an operation that would last until May 1949, and soon the Allies enlisted the help of the four-engine C-54 Skymaster, which had a nine-ton capacity.

Tactical airlift was redefined in 1956 with the advent of the Lockheed C-130 Hercules (also known as Herc). Capable of short takeoffs on dirt runways and equipped with four turboprops mounted high on the wings for maximum ground clearance, the Herc proved to be an exceptionally capable and resilient cargo platform. In addition to its primary transport role, the C-130 served throughout the Cold War in roles ranging from command and control to airborne hospital. It was exported to more than fifty countries. Although not as prolifically produced, the Antonov An-12 Cub provided the Warsaw Pact with a similar tactical airlift capability and mirrored the C-130 in size, capability, and breadth of mission.

The Lockheed C-141 Starlifter and, after 1970, the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy provided the United States with its strategic heavy lifting. The Galaxy was designed to carry 500,000 pounds of cargo, including the U.S. Army's bulkiest vehicles. Not to be outdone, the Soviets matched the C-141 with the Ilyushin IL-76 Candid in 1971 and the C-5 with the Antonov An-124 Condor in 1982, the latter of which remains the largest military aircraft ever mass-produced.

The civilian air transport sector mirrored the advancements pioneered within the military over the course of the Cold War. Through the 1950s, U.S. dominance in the industry was challenged only by the British, epitomized by the latter's development of the world's first turbojet-powered airliner, the de Havilland D.H.106 Comet, in 1949. Although significantly faster than its American piston-powered counter-parts, the Comet could carry only thirty-six passengers and demonstrated a structural weakness that led to calamitous midair disasters. Although later variants of the Comet would double the number of passengers and prove to be much safer, the model never recovered from its initial weaknesses in the public's eye and was quickly outclassed when Boeing released its Model 707 turbojet in 1958. The Soviet design bureau Tupolev introduced several airliners in the 1950s based on its bombers: the Tu-16 Badger accommodated passengers as the Tu-104, while the Tu-95 Bear was reclassified as the Tu-114.

Short- and medium-range airliners thrived in the U.S. market in the 1960s, particularly the Douglas DC-9 and Boeing Models 727 and 737. Longer-range mass transport was provided by the 747 jumbo jet, which first flew in February 1969 and could accommodate up to 500 passengers over a maximum distance of 6,200 miles. Supersonic travel became a mark of prestige, if not commercial success, for each bloc by the 1960s and 1970s: the Soviets produced the Mach 2.3 Tu-144 in model form at the 1965 Paris Air Show, while a collaborative Anglo-French program generated the Mach 2.2 BAe/Aerospatiale Concorde in 1976.

Rotary-wing aircraft did not make the substantial gains in technology and capability experienced by their fixed-wing counterparts during World War II. The first military helicopter with more than limited operational aptitude was the Sikorsky R-5, which entered service in 1946 and was used for observation, communications, and search and rescue during the Korean War. In 1956, the Bell Company established itself within the rotary community with the noteworthy UH-1 Iroquois, better known as the "Huey." UH-1 variants saw action in a variety of transport and attack roles in the Vietnam War and beyond.

Helicopter production became more specialized as it slowly advanced, leading to dedicated transport and gunship designs only by the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1957, the Soviet Mil design bureau unveiled the Mi-6 heavy-lift chopper, while the U.S. inventory remained devoid of medium and heavy lifters until the debut of the Boeing-Vertol CH-47 Chinook in 1961 and Sikorsky S-64 in 1962. Twenty years after the Mi-6, Mil followed up with the even larger Mi-26, which operated with a unique configuration of eight rotors and was the heaviest rotary-wing aircraft to achieve flight during the Cold War.

Bell created the first dedicated helicopter gunship in 1966 with its Model 209, fielded under the moniker AH-1 Huey-Cobra and later simply Cobra. Although the U.S. Army continued to use the AH-1 throughout the Cold War, the Hughes (later Boeing) AH-64 was introduced in 1975 as a replacement for the earlier model. Soviet attack capability was entrusted largely to the gunship versions of the Mi-8 Hip and Mi-24 Hind in the 1960s and 1970s and to the Mi-28 Havoc in the 1980s. Aircraft, both fixed-wing and rotary, enjoyed tremendous advances in the period of the Cold War.

Robert G. Berschinski

Further Reading
Chant, Christopher. A Century of Triumph: The History of Aviation. New York: Free Press, 2002.; Fredriksen, John C. International Warbirds: An Illustrated Guide to World Military Aircraft, 1914–2000. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2001.; Fredriksen, John C. Warbirds: An Illustrated Guide to U.S. Military Aircraft, 1915–2000. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1999.; Isaacs, Jeremy, and Taylor Downing. Cold War: An Illustrated History, 1945–1991. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998.; Norris, Guy, and Mark Wagner. Giant Jetliners. Osceola, WI: Motorbooks, 1997.; Shaw, Frederick J., and Timothy Warnock. The Cold War and Beyond: Chronology of the United States Air Force, 1947–1997. Washington, DC: Air Force History and Museums, 1997.; Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of Air Power. New York: William Morrow, 1986.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  About the Author/Editor
ABC-cLIO Footer