The Bomber Gap and the Missile Gap

A Soviet Myasischev 3M (NATO reporting name “Bison-B”) photographed from an intercepting U.S. Navy aircraft from the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31) during that carrier’s deployment to the Western Pacific and the Vietnam War from 27 January to 10 October 1968.

At the end of World War II, the United States had a very large bomber force that had been a major factor in the defeat of Germany and Japan. The United States was also building up an atomic arsenal, a weapon technology in which the Soviet Union lagged behind. The Soviets detonated their first nuclear device in 1949, much to the surprise of the U.S. administration and its intelligence community, which estimated it would take the Soviets another three years to achieve this (Polmar 2001, 34). Initially, the Soviets were badly behind the United States in numbers. In 1953, for example, they had 120 such weapons, compared with more than 1,100 American ones (Norris and Arkin 1994, 59). But their real problem lay in how to bring these bombs to their targets.

In their distress, the Soviets copied the American B-29, several of which had made emergency landings in the Soviet Union after missions over Japan (Hardesty and Grinberg 2012, 347–53). The first public appearance of this bomber, copied through reverse engineering, occurred in 1947, and the Soviets produced several hundred of them. But all the time, they aspired to a more advanced, jet-propelled bomber. The United States already had the B-47, and in 1952 the B-52 made its first flight. As a counter to these, the Soviets developed the Myasishchev M-4 Bison, which made its first appearance over Red Square during the May Day parade in 1954, accompanied by four MiG-17s. Western observers were highly impressed, and even more so when in an aviation show the next year some thirty such bombers made an appearance. But soon it was revealed that the Soviets did not actually have that many such bombers; it was a smaller group of aircraft that made the flyover and, when out of sight of the audience, turned around for another flyby (Polmar 2001, 87; Prados 1986, 41–43).

Nevertheless, the appearance of these bombers drove the American intelligence community to make more and more dire predictions about Soviet bomber capabilities. In the beginning of 1956, the air force’s chief of staff testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Soviet Union had more Myasishchev M-4 bombers than the total number of bombers possessed by the United States (Polmar 2001, 87). The administration was forced to accelerate production of the B-52, until it was found that these threat estimates were exaggerated (Roman 1995, 24). The actual danger to the United States proper was small because of the distances, but the problem was not protection of the U.S. itself. Any meaningful Soviet bomber force would have a major influence on other potential fronts, from Europe and the Pacific Ocean to the Far East.

The debate soon spilled over from professional aviation magazines and into the mass media, and even the U.S. News and World Report published articles in May 1956 headlined “Can Soviets Take the Air Lead?” and “Is the U.S. Really Losing in the Air?” (Polmar 2001, 87). Consequently, the American public developed increased sensitivity to what was going on in the Soviet Union, and every bit of information was interpreted in the most pessimistic manner. Concurrently, the Americans were becoming aware of the potential of long-range ballistic missiles, and this growing concern was fed as well by articles in the press. In February 1956, the Soviets launched a nine-hundred-mile ballistic missile, and President Eisenhower admitted in a press conference “that the Soviet Union might be ahead of the United States in some areas of the missile field” (Polmar 2001, 87).

By July 1956, things were calming down. The U-2 started flying over the Soviet Union and provided definitive information that the Soviets probably had far fewer advanced bombers than previously estimated (125 instead of 700), and although there was progress in ballistic-missile work, “intelligence estimates indicated that the Soviets would not be able to deploy militarily significant quantities” of ICBMs prior to the 1960–1965 time frame (Roman 1995, 24).

Into this bubbling cauldron dropped the first Sputnik on October 4, 1957. The hysterical reaction to the launch, and with the bomber gap still a living memory, it was easy to conjure up a missile gap. Since most of this discussion was aired in the press, the Soviets contributed at every opportunity to American uncertainties by issuing stories about their achievements in the missile field. It was simple propaganda, often based on blatant fabrications and outright lies, about their prowess in missile production (Polmar 2001, 123–24). At that time of confusion, and following their own failures in testing and launching, the Americans were willing to believe anything. It got so bad that when the Soviets stopped testing their missiles, because of severe technical difficulties, the U.S. Air Force immediately interpreted this as the end of the testing stage and a move into full production. This stood in contrast to the opinion of the CIA, which had the right explanation (Polmar 2001, 124; Roman 1995, 36).

The United States faced another problem: for a long time, they did not have any detailed, up-to-date information about production and basing facilities in the Soviet Union. All U.S. estimates in these matters were based on fairly foggy conjectures. A commission established in 1953 to deal with this problem found that the best available information was based on German maps from World War II, and even these covered only the areas west of the Urals (Polmar 2001, 36; Rosen 1991, 205).

In January 1961, before leaving office, President Eisenhower summarized this topic in his State of the Union Address: “The ‘bomber gap’ of several years ago was always a fiction and the ‘missile gap’ shows every sign of being the same” (Roman 1995, 145).

President Kennedy’s administration also suffered from the missile gap concerns. In September 1967, Robert McNamara, in a speech before newspaper editors and publishers, admitted that when he took office in 1961, the Soviet Union had a small stock of intercontinental missiles but had the technology and the industrial capacity to increase it. So since the United States was not sure of Soviet intentions, it had to ensure safety by the production of the Minuteman and Polaris missiles. And he concluded, “I am not saying that our decision in 1963 was unjustified. I am simply saying that it was necessitated by a lack of accurate information” (Rosen 1991, 218–19 and 219n94).

The McNamara speech raised the question of where it would have been more cost effective to invest resources. Would it have been better to maintain a standing defensive and retaliatory force, or to create a better information-gathering apparatus? Even with sixty-year hindsight, this cannot be answered, although admittedly intelligence assets are considerably more sophisticated today.

Another question concerning the Soviets that should have been asked, and which is meaningful today too, is the following: Did they plan a wide-scale deception about the numbers of bombers and missiles they possessed, or were they simply swept along with the unfolding events? Considering the role of the Western press, it is easy to write the following scenario, combining both paths.

The Soviets followed the Western press and its wide-ranging speculations. After the May Day parade of 1954, in which the first Myasishchev M-4 appeared, somebody in the Soviet Union became horrified at the thought that next year’s headline would be, “Despite the halo surrounding Soviet production capabilities, in a whole year they managed to build only five additional bombers. This definitely is a paper bear!” To anticipate this, they decided to engage in a little deception, “flew” thirty bombers, and the West got duly excited. The reaction to the Sputnik convinced the Soviets to jump on the bandwagon and let the West have what it looked for: a Bolshevik bandit hiding under every bed.

In any case, in the long run, the Soviet deception, whether planned or not, proved to be a mistake. There is no doubt that it succeeded—big time. But like the Germans with the Luftwaffe, the Soviets shot themselves in the foot. The Americans became scared and initiated several ambitious development projects, but they had the economic resources to succeed. When the Soviets understood this, they had to make a choice. Either opt out or enter an arms race. They chose the latter and brought about advanced technological development, but it came at an economic price they could not afford for long, and it was only a matter of time before the whole structure imploded. The Strategic Defense Initiative hastened this process and made it sudden, but it is quite possible that this would have happened by itself anyway.