Bomber gap

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The Bomber Gap was the Cold War belief that the Soviet Union's Long Range Aviation department had gained an advantage in deploying jet-powered strategic bombers. Widely accepted for several years, the gap was used as a political talking point in the United States to justify a great increase in defense spending.

One result was a massive buildup of the US Air Force bomber fleet, which peaked at over 2500 bombers to counter the perceived Soviet threat. Surveillance flights by the U-2 aircraft indicated that the bomber gap did not exist.

Realizing that the belief in the gap was an extremely effective funding source, the US military fabricated a series of similarly-nonexistent Soviet military advances. That tactic is now known as policy by press release. Some of the claims were a nuclear-powered bomber,[1] supersonic VTOL flying saucers,[2] and, only a few years later, the missile gap.


On February 15, 1954, Aviation Week published an article describing new Soviet jet bombers capable of carrying a nuclear bomb from their bases to the US.[3] The aircraft was the Myasishchev M-4 Bison. Over the next year and a half, the rumors were debated publicly in the press and soon in Congress.[4]

Soviet Aviation Day deception

Adding to the concerns was an infamous event in July 1955. At the Soviet Aviation Day demonstrations at the Tushino Airfield, ten Bison bombers were flown past the reviewing stand, flew out of sight, quickly turned around, and then flew past the stands again with eight more. That presented the illusion that there were 28 aircraft in the flyby. Western analysts, extrapolating from the illusionary 28 aircraft, judged that by 1960, the Soviets would have 800.[5]

US Air Force raises numbers of bombers

At the time, the Air Force had just introduced its own strategic jet bomber, the B-52 Stratofortress, and the shorter-range B-47 Stratojet was still suffering from a variety of technical problems that limited its availability. Its staff started pressing for accelerated production of the B-52 but also grudgingly accepted calls for expanded air defense.[6]

The Air Force was generally critical of spending effort on defense after it had studied the results of the World War II bombing campaigns and concluded that British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin's pre-war thinking on the fruitlessness of air defense was mostly correct: "The bomber will always get through." Like the British, the US Air Force concluded that money would better be spent on making the offensive arm larger to deter an attack. The result was a production series consisting of thousands of aircraft. Over 2,000 B-47s and almost 750 B-52s were built to match the imagined fleet of Soviet aircraft.

Disproval of gap

US President Dwight Eisenhower had always been skeptical of the gap. However, with no evidence to disprove it, he agreed to the development of the U-2 to find out for sure.[7]

The first U-2 flights started in 1956. One early mission, Mission 2020, flown by Martin Knutson on July 4, 1956,[8] flew over Engels-2 airfield, near Saratov, and photographed 20 M-4 Bison bombers on the ramp. Multiplying by the number of Soviet bomber bases, the intelligence suggested the Soviets were already well on their way to deploying hundreds of aircraft. The U-2 had actually photographed the entire Bison fleet; there was no bomber at any of the other bases.[9] Similar missions over the next year finally proved that. At least in official circles, the gap had been disproved.[5]

Other newly declassified information indicates that Engels was never overflown, and nothing was confirmed about Bison aircraft numbers until December 1959[10][11][12] The downward revision in Bison numbers was caused by new information from the factories that was received in 1958. It showed that production rate had slowed down.[13][14]

As it was later discovered, the M-4 was unable to meet its original range goals and was limited to about 8,000 kilometers (5,000 mi). Unlike the US, the Soviets still lacked overseas bases in the Western Hemisphere and so the M-4 could not attack the US and then land at a friendly airbase. Interest in the M-4 waned, and a total of only 93 were produced before the assembly lines were shut down in 1963.

The vast majority were used as tankers or maritime reconnaissance aircraft; only the original ten shown at the air show and nine newer 3MD13 models served on nuclear alert.[15]

In popular culture

  • In Stanley Kubrick's movie Dr. Strangelove, the notion of a "Bomber Gap" is parodied when the character of Buck Turgidson (a Pentagon general) declares that the US "must not allow a mineshaft gap" in discussing the use of mineshafts as nuclear fallout shelters.
  • In one episode of U.S. television situation comedy That '70s Show, "Who Wants It More", Donna and Eric do a report in his bedroom for school on the arms race between the superpowers. After several "study breaks" in which they make out, the two disagree over the "bomber gap." Donna incorrectly suggests that the Soviets started the arms race with the bomber gap; after Eric corrects her, she refuses further "study breaks."

See also


  1. ^ Soviets Flight Testing Nuclear Bomber, Aviation Week, 1 December 1958, p. 27.
  2. ^ Is this the real Flying Saucer?, Look, Volume 19, 14 June 1955
  3. ^ Pictures Reveal Reds' New "Sunday Punch", Aviation Week, 15 Feb. 1954, 12–13
  4. ^ Congress Gets Red Plane Facts, Aviation Week, 22 February 1954, pp. 13–14
  5. ^ a b Heppenheimer, T. A. (1998). The Space Shuttle Decision. NASA. p. 193.
  6. ^ Guarding the Cold War Ramparts: The U.S. Navy's Role in Continental Air Defense
  7. ^ Bomber Gap
  8. ^ Lockheed U-2 mission history
  9. ^ Interview with Martin Knutson
  10. ^ (U) Heavy Bomber Targets, CIA-RDP61S00750A000500040115-4, Central Intelligence Agency, May 21, 1958.
  11. ^ [Mission 8005 Submitted 18 December 1959] (Document title of Mission 8035 is in error, see copy), CIA-RDP78B05700A000400200005-1, Central Intelligence Agency, December 21, 1959
  12. ^ ODE 8005, CIA-RDP78T05693A000300050001-4, Central Intelligence Agency, December 13, 1959.
  13. ^ Validity of Hevy Bomber Estimate in NIE 11-4-57, CIA-RDP61-00549R000200010002-1, Central Intelligence Agency, April 11, 1958.
  14. ^ Recent Evidence on Bison Production (Top Secret), CIA-RDP79R00904A000400030035-9, Central Intelligence Agency, July 9, 1958.
  15. ^ Myasishchev 'Bison'
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