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I'm researching the history of the Cold War and I have the impression that the Soviets failed to develop a bomber capable of flying from Russia to the United States until 1956, when the Tu-95 bomber entered service. The R-7 ICBM was developed in 1957.

If this is correct, then

  • the Russians developed a nuclear bomb in 1949, but
  • it was useless as a weapon against the US until 1956 because they couldn't drop the bomb on America (they had the bomb, but no suitable means of transportation).

At what point in time did the USSR get the ability to nuke the major areas in the US (i. e. bomb plus aircraft or rocket to deliver it from Russia to the US) ?

By "major areas" I mean big cities and important military objects.

  • 5
    Russia to Alaska is 55miles. I'm guessing they had a bomber that could fly that far in 1949. – KillingTime Mar 5 '17 at 13:29
  • Thanks. I modified the question -- I'm interested at what point in time they could drop a bomb on New York, Washington and other major cities. – Franz Drollig Mar 5 '17 at 13:41
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    @KillingTime: what would one bomb in Alaska? – Alex Mar 6 '17 at 18:08
  • Alaska was not a U.S. state (only a "territory") until 1959. – Tom Au Jun 8 '17 at 16:56
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(Revised) In principle, they obtained this capability in 1951.

In 1949 the Soviets introduced Tu-4 (an unlicensed copy of B-29, by "reverse engineering") with range 5400 km and 847 of them were built in 1949-1952. It was the first Soviet aircraft capable to drop nuclear weapon. With this range it could reach major US cities without return.

The Soviets were prompt in demonstration of this capability. Tu-4 was shown to the world in an aviation demonstration in August 1947 (4 of them appeared).

The next model was Tu-16 (1500 built starting 1954) with range 7200 km, already sufficient to hit NY from Murmansk region and come back.

However, Yuly Khariton in his memoirs mentions that the first air dropped bomb was tested in October 1951, from Tu-4. (The earlier bombs were not designed for air drop).

Another reference addressing exactly this question is CIA. Special National Intelligence Estimate. Soviet Capabilities for Attack on the US through 1957. SNIE 11–2-54, published February 24, 1954. P. 5–6. HSTL, PSF.

EDIT2. A good source is the book of David Holloway, Stalin and the bomb. He cites the following dialog about M-4 bomber by Miasishchev (1954): "When Khrushchev expressed his dissatisfaction with M-4 having no sufficient range, Miasishchev replied that the plane can bomb in the US and then land in Mexico. Khrushchev: Do you consider Mexico our mother-in-law!? Whom you can visit at any time? Mexicans will never return our plane".

Very typical of Khrushchev:-)

BTW Holloway estimated that SU had only 50 nuclear bombs by 1954.

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    @FranzDrollig, it would not be quite that suicidal. Depending on the remaining fuel, the crew could fly towards an allied or neutral country, towards open ocean where a ship would pick them up after ditching the plane, or at least beyond the immediate blast radius to parachute down. In theory, even a crew that had just nuked a city could surrender and become POWs. The US used similar tactics in their emergency war plans. – o.m. Mar 5 '17 at 15:06
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    @JohnDallman, Cuba wasn't socialist at the time in question. – o.m. Mar 5 '17 at 16:04
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    The fate of the crew is a minor consideration in the nuclear strike planning. There are many options: land somewhere and surrender lend on a neutral territory etc. – Alex Mar 5 '17 at 17:05
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    Of course this assumes that the bombers could get to the US undetected, and wouldn't be shot down. In practice, the US had quite sophisticated (for the time) detection and intercept capabilites, such as the SAGE program and DEW line. – jamesqf Mar 5 '17 at 18:56
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    @jamesqf The theory at the time, believed by all, was that "The bomber will always get through." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_bomber_will_always_get_through What it really means is, at least 1 bomber will reach the target. It came from WW2 experience. Ignore hollywood showing huge formations of bombers all getting blasted. In reality, more like 5, 10%, maybe 25%, did not come back from a sortie. Simply detecting the incoming squadrons is good for warning time, but is by no means a guarantee of stopping them. So if you wanna analyze capability, you really hafta look at fleet numbers. – DrZ214 Mar 6 '17 at 5:54

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