Locklin on science

Soviet interceptors: the power and the glory

Posted in big machines by Scott Locklin on July 30, 2013

The Soviets solved problems differently from the West. This wasn’t just because they had different problems to solve, though there is that. Part of the reason their artifacts are so weird to Western eyes is their engineering and scientific disciplines evolved under different pressures.

Consider the Soviet long range interceptors. Westerners mostly didn’t consider the interceptor to be an important combat role. The Soviet Union had vast territory, widely distributed population, and was surrounded by hostile neighbors with advanced long range bomber technology. Western nations were much smaller, with population centers less widely distributed. Western nations also only had to worry about attacks from one or two hostile nations, mostly far away. Soviets had to worry about attacks from Turkey, Japan, West Germany, France, China, Canada and Britain; they were surrounded. Soviet long range bombers were also not very effective compared to the Western ones. Soviet reconnaissance aircraft were also nowhere near as good as Western ones, and almost never left Soviet borders, where Western reconnaissance aircraft routinely penetrated Soviet borders. As such, point interceptors, such as the superb English Electric Lightning sufficed for defense against bombers for the West. There were a few aborted attempts at long range, high speed interceptors in the West; the Avro Arrow, the XF-108 Rapier, and proposed SR.187. Since no credible long-range, high speed Soviet bomber threat emerged, and missiles made this kind of attack of secondary concern, they didn’t bother going to production with these.


Tu-128UT, trainer model, informally known as, “the pelican”

The Soviets, though, they had serious problems requiring effective interceptors. They also had credible future threats, like the TSR-2 and the XB-70 Valkyrie. As such, they needed fast, long range interceptors. Interception was so important, the Soviets had a whole, independent air force, the PVO-Strany, whose job it was to do nothing other than defend the airspace of Mother Russia. This wasn’t a mere bureaucratic distinction like SAC or NORAD: the PVO-Strany had their own radar installations, their own schools, and their own chain of command. They even have their own holiday; April 11 if you care to toast their brave pilots with some wodka on that day. Because the bureaucracy which developed the interceptor forces was separate from other air forces commands, and was considered of the highest importance (the memories of Stalingrad were not very old), they had very specific priorities which needed to be met by aircraft design bureaus. In Western nations, it was generally accepted that aircraft designs should fulfill more general roles.

The early generations of these Soviet interceptors which had to fulfill these design goals are some of the most fascinating mechanical objects ever built. Their secrets were jealously guarded: they were never offered for export, and as a result, we still know little about them today. They were designed to intercept fast moving, high flying planes. They were not designed as dogfighters, unlike the Soviet general purpose fighters: they were meant to be controlled from a central command, move quickly, shoot their missiles, and return to base. Speed, climb rate, endurance and the ability to carry heavy, bomber destroying missiles were what was necessary. It was the supersonic aircraft equivalent of a top fuel dragster.


Early Su-15 Flagon-A

The Su-15 flagon was one of the most successful Soviet heavy interceptors, and exemplifies the idea the PVO-Strany was trying to bring to fruition. It was big: 64 feet long, and 38,000lbs; about the same size as the F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber. It was fast: Mach 2.5. It had long legs, with a 900 mile combat radius at 60,000 feet. It used two Mig-21 motors, and, due to its little delta wing had a preposterously hot take off and landing speed: as high as 280mph in the early pure delta model shown above.  It had a simple, but powerful radar system, designed to overwhelm ECM defenses by burning through them. Its arms were giant R-8 missiles, designed to take out large bombers. They also worked well on 747s. The Su-15 was effective against high flying targets, and almost 1300 of them patrolled the skies  from its 1967 deployment until the 90s. The Russians allegedly still keep some of these  mothballed in case they are needed in a time of crisis.


Later Su-15 Flagon-D. Note the cranked delta wing for slightly better low speed handling.

The Tu-128 was the heaviest fighter ever built, tipping the scales at a preposterous 88,000 pounds. By contrast, the B-58 Hustler only weighed 68,000 pounds, fully loaded with nukes. The size of the Tu-128 was no accident: it evolved from a failed supersonic bomber design. It used even more preposterously large missiles as its armament; the R-4. It wasn’t as common or successful as the Su-15, and it was slower and had a lower climb rate and ceiling, but it had its niche in Soviet air defense. Because of its enormous size it had  a longer range; 1600 miles. This made it particularly well suited to long patrol missions in the unpopulated North and East; it was able to loiter for hours at potential target areas. It wasn’t as dependent on ground control as the Su-15 was, as it had powerful radar of its own (legend has it, it would kill rabbits by the runway), and it was often used in concert with Soviet AWACS aircraft.


Prototype Tu-128 fiddler: the bomb-looking fairing is for test equipment

The Ye-150/2 series was never actually deployed, but it is my favorite of the Soviet heavy interceptors. The Mig-25 Foxbat was its eventual, much different looking offspring, also developed by the Mikoyan design bureau (they used “Ye” designation for prototypes, meaning yedinitsa or “single unit”). It was a sort of fat stainless steel version of a Mig-21; a metal cylinder with delta wings.  Early versions made it to Mach 2.9, and climbed to an absurd service ceiling of 76,000 feet. This was higher than the service ceiling of the U-2, and it was in testing before the Gary Powers incident. The service ceiling for the F-15 is only 60,000 feet. The Ye-150 could allegedly hit 50,000 feet in two and a half minutes. The English Electric lightning was considered one of the fastest climbers around, and it could only hit 40,000 feet in three minutes. Due to its stout tubular construction, there was also room for up to 15,000 pounds of fuel; the range was an impressive 1000 miles. The performance of this aircraft was off the hook; the fastest manned single engine jet which ever flew. And it flew in 1959. The A-12/SR-71 didn’t fly at all until 1962, and it took until 1963 to beat the performance of the Ye-152.


Dual engine Ye-152a

It’s worth explaining why the Ye-152 wasn’t developed into production. It was an amazing aircraft with a lot of potential, and the long careers of the Su-15 and Tu-128 indicated there was a need for such a beast. The problems were two fold. The early Tumansky R-15 engines it was designed around were flakey. While they eventually worked the bugs out and built the Mig-25 around two of these, they were not yet reliable in 1959. These engines were originally disposable cruise missile engines (later deployed as a very cool supersonic drone). Their early lifespan reflected this. While they eventually worked the bugs out of the engine, the early prototypes delivered to the Ye-152 project were pretty bad. So bad, some early versions were, like the Su-15, powered with two Mig-21 Tumansky R-11’s.


Ye-152-1: the wingtip mounted missiles were a failure, but this craft set speed and altitude records

The other reason for the project failure was more pedestrian. It was designed around the Urugan-5 weapons system. This was a Soviet system meant to do something like what the SAGE/F-106 system did. The giant pointy shock cone on the Ye-152 was a radome for the Urugan-5B or Almaz fire control radars. The system had an integrated data link from the aircraft to ground control. It is hard to say if Urugan-5 would have ended up as complex as the SAGE system, because the project was canceled, and the resources reallocated to missiles. They did develop the Vozdoohk-1 system a few years later, which accomplished similar things using the Su-15, Mig-25 and Tu-128.


Ye-152M; the last, and fastest of the lot; Mach 2.8+

The thing looked fierce: the pointy ram intake/radome evokes images of the spiked helmet of a Prussian solder. The tiny, recessed cockpit of some versions makes it appear like some sinister subterranean carnivore from the front view. Over all the thing looks like a supersonic medieval mace; all straight lines and brutally sharp angles. The designers didn’t even bother with the “area rule” -they didn’t need to; it’s powerful engine punched through supersonic drag issues like a hatchet through dog shit. Unlike the swoopy-doopy SR-71 or Bristol 188 or Tsybin RSR, it is an undiluted incarnation of terrifying speed and electric death.


Early Ye-150 model. A hot ship, despite engine problems: Mach 2.65 without full burners, and hitting 74,000 feet.

The PVO-Strany was probably ultimately focusing on the wrong problem. When the US moved away from high speed, high altitude bombers, and towards cruise missiles and insane rednecks flying bombing runs at tree-trimming altitudes, PVO-Strany did adapt, coming up with interceptors with “look down, shoot down” radar, and different mixtures of low altitude SAMs. The problem is, there is really not much wide-area defense one can do against low altitude attacks. This was proved dramatically when a wacky 18 year old Austrian with 50 hours of flying experience landed his Cessna in Red Square in 1987.

For all its failings, high altitude air defense was a noble idea, borne of the historical suffering of the Soviet Union. The devices they invented to defend Rodina Mat are some of the most astonishing objects ever built by the hands of men. They are the crystalization of the Promethean human spirit of the era; a vision of a glorious future of superhuman speed and the exploration of space. “Alas, burnished fighter … How that time has passed, Dark under night’s helm, as though it never had been!”

31 Responses

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  1. Ronin said, on July 30, 2013 at 1:02 am

    In 1968, I was navigating C-124’s across the oceans for the Tennessee Air National Guard. One of the first navigators I flew with had come from EC-135’s. There were only about six in the entire Air Force, all stationed at Offutt AFB, then the home of the Strategic Air Command. My cohurt told me about regularly taking off from Anchorage to fly across the top of Russia. When someone in the back gave the word, they would turn south until being surrounded by Russian inteceptors. They would have to make sure the Russian pilots didn’t fly across the US side-looking radar and get fried. I guess it all worked, as Alaska was never conquered by the Russians.

    • Scott Locklin said, on July 30, 2013 at 1:26 am

      I rather wonder if they’re still doing this. The Russians certainly still have some excellent interceptors in the Mig-31 and Mig-25. Our glorious leaders still seem to worry about the Russians rather a lot, too; an idea which I figure has outlived its usefulness.
      Thanks for the anecdote, and if it ain’t too cheesy for Ranger Ronin, thanks for your service!

      • Rohan Jayasekera said, on July 30, 2013 at 7:26 pm

        I’m Canadian, and in late 1991 or early 1992 I was interviewed by a CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) agent since I had agreed to serve as the long-term reference for a friend who worked in missile engineering at a Canadian company and was applying for an upgrade beyond her existing Top Secret clearance. (Top Secret had evidently ceased to be Top.) The agent asked me questions about whether my friend had any Communist leanings, which I was surprised to hear (the Berlin Wall had come down in 1989), while the questions I did expect to hear, about any Palestinian, Islamist, etc. sympathies, never came.

        • Scott Locklin said, on July 30, 2013 at 10:59 pm

          Well, there is some twisted sense in that. There’s some guy over at the Nation (Eric something or other) who was a big old commie in the old days; the type who insisted that the Soviets could do no wrong. Now he’s a big old … I dunno what … but he still insists that Russians can do no wrong. I wouldn’t trust him with Canadian air defense secrets either.

          I don’t think any Islamists are planning on lobbing nukes across Canadian air space. I mean, I don’t think the Russians are in any serious way either, but they’re certainly gathering cold-war style intelligence in case they ever have to.

          Oddly, the Islamist group who I consider the biggest threat to the US ( Mujahedin-e Khalq), actually used to be commies, so perhaps it is a good filter. I consider them a problem because they are overtly influencing our policy towards Iran; pushing for war the way Chalabi’s gang pushed for war with Iraq in hopes of being set up as puppets. Their organizational skills and discipline are far superior to any other I can think of. Most of the Islamist movements I’m supposed to be afraid of seem like overgrown teenage gangs to me. I mean, they publish selfies for crying out loud.

  2. Stanislav Datskovskiy said, on July 31, 2013 at 4:08 am

    I personally am alive to read this in no small part because these beautiful machines existed.

    Anyone who doubts the usefulness of such hardware would do well to consider its actual purpose: to give well-wisher types from across the ocean second thoughts about the idea of spreading ‘airborne democracy’ to your home. Quite a few people are in the process of learning this fact the hard way as we speak.

    • Scott Locklin said, on July 31, 2013 at 5:48 am

      May the third Rome stay clear of the blessings of ‘airborne democracy’ for all time. I need some place to defect to, after all.

      • Toddy Cat said, on August 2, 2013 at 2:07 am

        Just heard that Putin just gave Snowden asylum. So there’s still hope for you – and possibly me…

        • Scott Locklin said, on August 2, 2013 at 2:18 am

          If someone told me, say, 10 or even 3-4 years ago that I’d start viewing the former Soviet Union as a beacon of freedom, and a place to escape from government tyranny, I’d think he was nuts. Dark times.

          • Petro said, on August 4, 2013 at 3:45 am

            If you think so today you’re nuts.

            • Ronin said, on August 4, 2013 at 4:54 pm

              I prefer a country with courts less Kangaroo…

              • Scott Locklin said, on August 4, 2013 at 10:50 pm

                From the Russian perspective (political cases and oligarchs like Corzine running free) ours probably look as bad as theirs. Reading the papers about Ukraine didn’t serve me well upon visiting the place; lawless in some ways to be sure, but nothing like how it was described.

  3. Stanislav Datskovskiy said, on July 31, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    Re: Mathias Rust: AFAIK, he survived because of PVO officials who wouldn’t give permission to fire on him, rather than inadequate detection capability.

    • Scott Locklin said, on August 1, 2013 at 5:35 am

      True enough; as I recall, they worried he was a Finn.
      I think the overall issues with defense against low-flying and small aircraft were pretty serious though. Here’s a pretty interesting essay on the subject from the American perspective. I had no idea how huge the PVO-Strany was; they had 6 interceptors for every US bomber!

      Click to access a228306.pdf

      • Toddy Cat said, on August 1, 2013 at 1:58 pm

        The Soviets were probably a little gun-shy after the KAL 007 shootdown, as well. Despite the hard line they took at the time, it was a public relations disaster for them, and they knew it.

      • Stanislav Datskovskiy said, on August 1, 2013 at 2:07 pm

        Gotta love the paper’s overall tone of “the savages should know when to give up their spears and bow to their betters.”

        I suspect that the modern answer to low-flying aircraft involves cell phone towers (using the very same principle which quietly obsoleted the ‘Stealth’ concept.) The open literature on the subject is rather thin, which should surprise no one.

        • Toddy Cat said, on August 1, 2013 at 3:11 pm

          Well, that paper was written in 1989, when the Cold War was still on. I doubt if Soviet papers on American air defense were any more complimentary, insofar as we had one after McNamara and his nitwits got done with it. Anyway, I knew guys in the Air Force back then, and they certainly didn’t regard Soviet air defenses with derision – some of them had faced them over Vietnam. It is true that, from about 1965 on, missiles were the primary threat, at least with regard to nuclear warfare. And yeah, you’re right about Stealth – quite a few AF types regard it as an outmoded concept, at least against any sort of advanced foe. ECM is the future.

  4. Toddy Cat said, on July 31, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    “well-wisher types from across the ocean”

    Nicely phrased. And as one old Cold War kid to another, you guys had some beautiful aircraft. And yes, with Communism gone, there is absolutely no reason we and the Russians can’t be friends. Guys like John McCain and Mitt Romney are like those Japanese soldiers they kept finding in the Pacific in the 1960’s, who didn’t know that the war was over. The Japanese had more excuse, though.

    • Stanislav Datskovskiy said, on July 31, 2013 at 4:25 pm

      McCain & friends know something the American public apparently doesn’t (but the average Russian knows very well.) Namely, what the eternal war is actually about: who gets to control one-sixths of the planet’s dry surface (and its unthinkably-gigantic reserves of untapped non-renewable resources.)

      Mrs. Thatcher’s little quip: “How many Russians do we need alive? At most fifty million, to keep the pipelines in good repair” is, curiously, virtually unknown in the West. Yet it is the most elegant explanation possible for all kinds of geopolitical pseudo-mysteries.

      • Toddy Cat said, on July 31, 2013 at 8:28 pm

        In some ways, I wish that the American elite was that Machiavellian; at least that way, they would be careful, at any rate, not to destroy the United States. But I’m afraid that stupidity, greed, eagerness for the applause of the crowd, and the desire to be invited to all the right parties is a lot closer to the truth. As Napoleon is said to have said “never ascribe to malevolence that which can equally explained by stupidity”. And as for the Thatcher quote, could you please give me a source on that? I’ve never heard it, and I can’t find it on the internet, and given that there are so many anti-Thatcher sites out there, that’s kind of odd. Are you sure it wasn’t some creative writing or disinformation – there was a lot out there during the Cold War, some of it of very high quality.

        Anyway, I’ll go back to my original point; you guys had some great aircraft, and I’m glad that we’re not enemies any more, at least not as far as I’m concerned…

        • Scott Locklin said, on July 31, 2013 at 9:43 pm

          I’m a patriotic US Citizen, but I consider my government a fairly malevolent force at this point. If I were Russian, I certainly would think this; if you look at historical US government actions towards the Russian federation (outlined here: http://takimag.com/article/romney_wrong_on_russia_scott_locklin/print#axzz2af4hbFZN ) in context, it’s difficult to come to any other conclusion.
          There was a fun meme making its rounds in right wing circles a few years ago. In a modern “Red Dawn” scenario where Russia invaded the US, what would you do? “Welcome them as liberators” was the most popular answer.

          • Toddy Cat said, on July 31, 2013 at 9:59 pm

            No, you can’t blame the Russians for thinking we have some deep, dark, plan. I probably would, too, if I was Russian. They probably can’t believe that any Superpower could be so stupid. Putin has his issues, but he is at least living in the real world, which is more than a lot of our so-called “elites” can say. I’d swap Putin for Obama or McCain in a heartbeat. By the way, here’s an article by “Spengler” that addresses this issue better than I could.


            By the way, I really enjoy your features on Cold War tech. It’s like Proust and his madelines, the memories come flooding back…

  5. Rohan Jayasekera said, on August 2, 2013 at 8:23 am

    One fact I remembered from reading this was that the Su-15 was big. I wouldn’t have expected such a fact to be relevant in anything I read subsequently, but it was! I just read June 18 article Cause Of Yuri Gagarin Death Finally Revealed By Fellow Cosmonaut, and learned that Gagarin’s death while in a MiG-15UTI occurred because “a deep spiral can occur if a larger, heavier aircraft passes by too closely, causing backwash to flip the smaller plane”. That larger, heavier aircraft was a Su-15.

  6. Michael Moser said, on September 2, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    I never understood why the Soviet Union had to fight the whole world; all these gadgets cost them a fortune and ran the economy down, ‘Strategic parity’ finished them, completely; In China they had more competent rulers, those decided that a limited nuclear deterrence is sufficient; even crazy Mao understood that cooperation with US is the better option. Now where is Russia now, and where is China ?

    • Michael Moser said, on September 2, 2013 at 4:51 pm

      In Russian they have a great verb: Пропить – to waste something in order to get booze; to waste something for wastes sake; actually in German you also have such a verb verzechen, versaufen) That’s what military spending did with the country ; actually they also have a more rude verb: Проебать – which is probably more appropriate in this context, as such things go.

    • Toddy Cat said, on September 4, 2013 at 7:44 pm

      Yeah, getting involved in an arms/technology race with the U.S. was probably the stupidist thing the USSR could have done. It can only be explained by the Soviets believing their own propaganda; that their system really was superior, in every way. If the Soviets had been content to deter the U.S. while focussing their efforts on”Wars of National Liberation” in the third world, where they were actually winning, at least until Reagan, things might have ended very differently. They did build some magnificent aircraft, though.

      • Scott Locklin said, on September 5, 2013 at 5:16 pm

        Odom’s “Collapse of the Soviet Military” provides some insights into why they did this. Bureaucracies have their own logic. Which, as someone pointed out above, is why we’re spending so much money on the turd that is the F-35.

    • 1RW said, on September 5, 2013 at 11:36 pm

      The Soviet Union had to fight the whole world because the whole world was against it, including communist China. Specifically, the Soviets had to fight the U.S. because there are only two possible relationships with the U.S. adversarial and submissive. The need to fight the U.S. was vindicated in spades after the Cold War stopped. The U.S. never stopped putting strategic pressure on Russia, it only moved NATO ever closer to Moscow and spread its influence further into Russia’s backyard. U.S. advisors and U.S. funded oligarchs wrecked and stole the soviet economy. Instead of showing magnanimity and creating a fast friendship, the U.S. kicked Russia when it was down.

      In a more general way, Russia is huge, has a lot of things other people want, and is usually strong enough to fight them off. This is the fate of all powerful countries, but especially so for Russia beacuse it borders Europe, Islam, and China. All three are threats, and there’s a great chance that at least one of them is a hot threat at any one time. Right now its Islam.

      Hope that helped.

      Not sure if China’s posture would have been sufficient if the U.S. or Russia weren’t preoccupied with one another.

      • Toddy Cat said, on September 8, 2013 at 2:57 am

        Give some thought to why the world was so against the USSR and Communism. 100 million dead, anyone? World Revolution? Wars of “National Liberation? The GuLag? Yes, U.S. policy after 1991 was stupid and counterproductive for all concerned, but don’t try to whitewash Communism. Vladimir Putin himself has called it “Russia’s greatest mistake”. Besides, even if Russia had needed to fight the U.S., trying to match U.S. technology was the wrong approach, which was the original point.

        Hope this helps.

        • 1RW said, on September 8, 2013 at 4:14 am

          You can be against communism without being militarily aggressive to it. The Americans had no problem being allied with the U.S.S.R. when the communists were actually in the process of killing those millions, like in the 30’s. After WWII the Soviet killing spree was pretty much done with. The U.S. wanted a dominant position in the world, and the Soviets were pretty much the only obstacle, just like now. All the ideological stuff is fairytales they tell the sheeple to get them to go along quietly.

          As far as trying to match U.S. technology being the wrong approach, you haven’t really proposed a better one. When the U.S. has a fleet of nuclear armed B-52s circling your country, building interceptors and SAMs seems pretty darn reasonable. Were the Soviets supposed to asymmetrically throw potatoes at the USAF? The need to defend your country is beyond ideology. I’m sure Russians would have come up with a PVO if the Tsar was still in charge given the threat.

          Which is my point, if you’d read my post, you’ll notice that I say nothing about communism.

  7. […] People may recall the KAL007 incident where an airliner was shot down by a Soviet interceptor. The Su-15 flagon interceptor which accomplished this used a brobdingnagian K-8 missile, with an 88lb warhead, which […]

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