Espionage, Reverse Engineering, and Soviet Long Range Aviation

This is a documentary on how a Soviet design team, led by a man who’d been a political prisoner during the Great Purges, conducted the single greatest feat of reverse engineering in engineering history: the knock-off of the B-29A bomber as the Tupolev Tu-4. The creation of this aircraft instantly made Soviet Long-Range Aviation (their equivalent of the USAF Strategic Air Command) a credible force worldwide. Got an hour and a half today?

Like most other European powers, the Soviets had experimented with long-range, four-engined bombers before and during the war, but depended instead on large fleets of twin-engined, medium-range medium and light bombers. Only the USA and Great Britain actually developed credible long-range bomber fleets.

But the B-29 was qualitatively different from first-generation fourmotors like the Boeing B-17 and Consolidated B-24, or the Avro Lancaster or Handley-Page Halifax. It used next-generation technologies throughout, including engines of greater complexity and power, much higher-technology defensive armament with remote-control, low-drag turrets, and a pressurized, shirtsleeve environment for the crew. Some parts were so sophisticated that new manufacturing processes were invented to suit. The entire airplane was a Hail Mary effort by the world-leading American aviation industry; at that, in came very close to failing. (The parallel effort that produced the Consolidated B-32 Dominator did fail).

The Soviet effort included espionage by the NKVD (later KGB) and GRU as well as direct reengineering of “captured” B-29s. How could the Soviets capture B-29s when the USA and USSR were allies, not enemies, in World War II? Ah, that was in the West. From the Soviet point of view, the war with Japan was Britain’s and America’s problem, and the USSR maintained neutrality. Thus, combatant aircraft of either nation that landed on Soviet territory, and their crews, were subject to being interned. As the 20th Air Force stepped up raids on Japan from bases first in China and later in the Marianas Islands, an occasional B-29 made an emergency landing in Soviet territory. The crews usually made their way back to the United States (minus anyone the KGB interpreted as a Soviet citizen, who vanished into the Gulag forever). The planes never did. What were the Russians doing with them? When the Tu-4 appeared in 1947, we had the answer.

The primary effort to copy the B-29, ordered by Stalin himself, was the re-engineering effort, but espionage was also involved, especially where novel industrial processes were involved. Fortunately for the Soviets, they had a comprehensive network of agents in place and potential recruits.

There’s a reason that Americans in the fifties and sixties were asked if they were, or had been, members of the Communist Party. The Party throughout its existence owed its loyalty to the USSR; while many misguided idealistic Americans cycled through its ranks, anyone who came and stayed was, not to put to fine a point on it, an agent of a foreign power already. (Additionally, the Soviet intelligence services recruited from within the Party. They would usually direct an espionage recruit to break with the Party for cover purposes, something our counterintelligence was slow to grasp and exploit). And nobody in 1942-45 cared if some guy was a Communist or liked the USSR — hell, everybody liked the USSR, they were bearing the brunt of the fight against Hitler. This network of willing ideological agents fanned out across the engineering firms, manufacturers, even steel and aluminum smelters and foundries, stealing not just the detail design of the B-29’s systems and components, but the industrial processes that made them possible.

The Russians also manipulated Lend-Lease to get some B-29 components. Lend-Lease reported to Harry Hopkins, a lifelong friend of President Roosevelt who was a committed Soviet agent. The US would not give the Soviets B-29s or their engines… so Hopkins arranged for them to get examples of an unarmed seaplane that had the same engine. Soon enough, factories in Russia turned out perfect, even improved, copies of the engines. This happened on a smaller scale with items like analog gun control computers, turbosuperchargers and pressure recovery turbines, electrical servos and lightweight hydraulics.

The classified Norden bombsight had already been acquired by agents in the design and production; vaccum tube production technology was stolen and improved Soviet production. Many of the American spies doing this didn’t think of themselves as traitors: why, they were just helping our best ally, “Uncle Joe!” Wartime propaganda, often produced by writers and artists who were Party members or fellow travelers, made it easy to rationalize as a patriotic duty, and one problem Soviet agent handlers had, in those pre-Cold War years of alliance, was convincing their American agents to clam up about their efforts to help the USSR. Even during the war, that kind of boasting caused the roll-up of agent networks, although with less fanfare than such events would have produced pre-1942 or post-1945.

The first flight of the Tu-4 was carried out by a test crew led by long-time test pilot Mark Lazarevich Gallai, who would also test the early jet MiG-9. Gallai’s memoir, Through Invisible Barriers, is available in several languages but not, as far as we know, English.

Having stolen the B-29, the Soviets found out that it still had a lot of teething problems, including a tendency to engine fires that made flying it one of Gallai’s most memorable experiences. They had plenty of engineers on the job, though, and tended to solve these problems by independent engineering, more than by redirecting the espionage apparatus to nick the American solutions.

The USA followed the B-29 with two amazing bombers that owed much to the concepts and processes of the B-29, but little to the actual aircraft: the Consolidated B-36 Peacemaker, and the Boeing B-47 Stratojet. The USSR, lacking the easy access of wartime, didn’t try to steal these in toto. Instead, the Soviets built directly upon their Tu-4 in the design of next generations of bomberr. Some trace Tu-4 DNA still exists in the Tu-95 NATO codename Bear, a 1950s design that still serves Russia today. But Soviet engineering, bootstrapped by the crash Tu-4 project, (and perhaps, especially in turboprop propulsion, some war-trophy engineering from Germany), would continue to serve Soviet needs. The USSR was never as far behind in aviation again as it had been at the outset of the Tu-4 program; indeed, after that remarkable catch-up it was often ahead (as it sometimes had been in the 1930s, before the purges).

And when native engineering fell short? Well, the spies were always willing to accept a tasking. But they never again stole a whole airplane design, and all the industrial processes to produce it.

48 thoughts on “Espionage, Reverse Engineering, and Soviet Long Range Aviation

  1. Simon

    I think there is a bit missing at the end “The primary effort to copy the Tu-4, ordered by Stalin himself, was the re-engineering effort, but espionage was also involved, especially where novel industrial processes were involved. Fortunately for the Soviets, they had a comprehensive”. Should that be B-29 that is to be copied?

    1. Hognose Post author

      Corrections made, Simon, thank you very much.

      It is rather delightful to have the ability to make posts and comments again.

      1. John Distai

        It’s rather delightful to be able to read them again. I hope you didn’t have to pay a “ransom” to resume.

        1. Hognose Post author

          No but I did decide to contract an anti-malware service, given that I’ve had problems in the past. So far, it’s already thwarted one attempt to hack the site, so it paid for itself.

  2. DSM

    The B-29 was the first thing I thought of when you mentioned reverse engineering. The russkies did the same thing with an AIM-7 when one flew home stuck in a MiG.

    Developing a new whiz bang weapon means the first time you commit to using it lets the cat out of the bag. Eventually the other side will figure it out and work on countermeasures, or, a bad day will happen as in the B-29, AIM-7 or the F-117A in Kosovo one plops into their collective laps.

    1. Steve M.

      I just did an image search on the F-117 shot down by the Serbs. I did not realize there was so much of the plane left.

      Whatever happened to the F-22 that went down in Alaska? I remember the pilot and plane were hard to find for a little while. I remember thinking that the Russians might have had a hand in the plane and pilot going missing.

      1. Matt

        Ala Major Joseph Makatozi in Louis L’Amour’s Last of the Breed? One of the best adventure survival novels I’ve ever read, and one of the long books Louis did before his death. Highly recommended.

      2. Ti

        I had read in Aviation Week & Space Technology back when this event happened and they suggested that the OPFOR had access to a technology that actually utilizes the data channels on a cellular telephone network. They could actually detect phase delay(therefore position) from tower to tower of the signal bouncing off the BOTTOM of the f-117. Remember stealth is stealth until it’s not. The plane is designed to reflect radio waves.

        1. DSM

          Quite, the aircraft wasn’t entirely invisible as they relied on every trick possible; absorption, deflecting and route selection to avoid being fixed.
          My unsubstantiated gut feeling was that enough ordnance was put into the sky along the assumed tracks and got lucky, or, they got a good enough fix from a weapon release.
          Speaking of F117s, some twenty years back now we had a couple roll through a place I was at with a Navy pilot (because they prefer to be called aviators) on the stick, name was on the jet and everything. Just a normal exchange program thing but that must’ve been a pretty sweet gig.

  3. Steve M.

    “There’s a reason that Americans in the fifties and sixties were asked if they were, or had been, members of the Communist Party. The Party throughout its existence owed its loyalty to the USSR; ……..”

    Which is why we had some very interesting signs (and laws, etc) like the one I’m attaching below.

    The Soviet’s constant stealing and espionage is something I still find fascinating. That being said, I can’t help but look down at any of their designs as they usually seem to be poorly assembled copies of whatever the successful designs of the day were. I am aware from reading this blog that certain elements of their designs do indicate honest engineering and thought, but I don’t often see examples. Does anybody have a list of successful Soviet designs, not stolen from other nations? Hognose, could that be enough to turn into a post sometime in the future?

    I’m very happy to see the site back up and running.

    1. Scipio Americanus

      If you’re looking for discrete physical examples of Russian technical innovation there are plenty to chose from, and in realms as varied as small-arms, armored vehicles, rocketry and missilery, fixed-wing aircraft, and helicopters. An example from each category: Fedorov Avtomat, BMP-1, storable liquid propellants, Ekranoplans, Mi-24. The Avtomat is pre-Soviet, but you could substitute any number of post 1917 armaments if you want the list to be all-Red.

      They pioneered the use of titanium as a structural metal (no small feat), and made great contributions to aerodynamics and high-energy physics, including the tokomak configuration for fusion reactors that’s still the focus of most research in that field.

      They also built plenty of equipment with uninspiring but adequate performance that were nonetheless rugged and easy to mass-produce.

      Of course, their mil-industrial complex laid its fair share of rotten eggs, too. The key is that they weren’t mindless copycats or sub-human mongoloid hordes (contra Haxo and his ilk). They were world class when it came to theory and engineering. Thankfully, their production infrastructure, command economy, and political organization made it incredibly difficult to efficiently convert theory and engineering into hardware.

      1. Haxo Angmark

        liar. I said no such thing about the Russians. Ever. It’s the neo-conz that are angling toward making Russia the Germany of the 21st century (“Putin is the new Hitler! Russian aggression!”), in order to promote a final White-on-White civilizational massacre.

        as to superior Russian military technology, you need think only of the T-34. By far the best main battle tank of WW II, and a decisive element on the Eastern Front. Compared to the German tanks, all virtues and no vices: relatively few moving parts, easy to produce in huge numbers, easy to train crews, plenty of armor, big gun, great (Christie) drivetrain, fast, low profile, well- armored. By mid 1943 (Kursk), German main battle tank production was 200 units/month. Russian: 2,000 units/month. Game over.

        1. Scipio Americanus

          Dude, just last week you made some comment about the Germans being overwhelmed by ill-organized Russian hordes. The Red Army may have been many things, but at least after the initial shock of Barbarossa wore off they were not an ill-organized horde. Sorry if I misunderstood, but I took that to be the usual “rah-rah Russians are sub-human untermenschen” that one often gets with folks well-disposed towards the regime of a certain Austrian-born chancellor.

      2. Steve M.


        Thanks for the reply. I will look into the BMP-1. I had always dismissed it as just another APC.

        I also forgot about the Hind. It is quite a helicopter.

        Now Ekranoplans, I need to read up on. I think I have brushed across them in reading about hovercraft, but I never looked into them. Thanks.

    2. Hognose Post author

      The US steals stuff back all the time. We target our espionage more narrowly, not usually at technical intelligence. (Most nations’ services believe, whether it’s true or not, that they have the best stuff, especially if it’s domestic produced stuff). One fun thing that I know we got from the Russians by spying is — you will laugh at this — windshield wipers for helicopters. We never had good wipers that worked — turns out, design for cars or planes doesn’t work on something that might be hovering or flying forward, backward or sideways. But someone at the Mil design bureau figured it out, and we totally ripped him off. Sorry, Ivan.

      We could say that’s payback for Mil stealing Sikorsky’s rotor head design, but Igor Sikorsky actually stole Pitcairn’s design, and lost a patent suit over it. (Sikorsky was a very original guy in most things… and he was as Russian as anybody, before he had to sell out to Vought he employed damn near every Russian emigré in Connecticut or New York, whether or not the guy had a skill… some of them became his closest collaborators). Igor Sikorsky is actually claimed as a son by three nations, the USA, Ukraine, and Russia!

      We also had a contractor reverse engineer the RPG-7. They kind of missed the simplicity and low cost of the original model, but the jewel-like copy works just fine. The RPG is an excellent example of how Soviets (and Russians) do weapons, because it started out as a knock-off of a late war experimental Panzerfaust version but by the time it went into service was vastly better than its German inspiration, and Russian engineers continue to improve it today.

      1. Hanzo

        Hognose, have you ever read “American Betrayal”, By Diane West? The definitive source for your subject matter of this thread. She has over 900 footnotes, and she was able to receive voluminous amounts of info from the ‘VENONA’ files, on her own and with the assistance of many of the preeminent historians in the field of Soviet espionage/US collusion since , and especially during, WW2.

  4. Cap'n Mike

    The whole standard to metric things fascinates me. The Aluminum skin wasnt even the right thickness.
    It seems like they put almost as much effort to stealing the design as they would have put into building their own.

  5. Quill_&_Blade

    It was probably 15 years ago, I was out in Oak Ridge, buying corn for our hogs; there were billboards to the effect of loose lips sink ships. Not the exact wording IIRC, but the intent was the same.

  6. Badger

    Glad you’re back up & the relations can be (11th hour) off suicide watch.
    Have earmarked the video for later watching; thanks so much for that.

    Besides engine fires – which restricted mission-launch hours, along with density altitudes in the tropics – I wonder if they experienced the initial spate of blister “blowouts” which I can assure suddenly makes that interior NOT a shirt-sleeve environment. Hopefully the video will reveal but, nonetheless, looking forward to it. Gracias.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Nothing quite like having a whoosh and all the moisture in the cabin suddenly condenses into cloud, while all the dust on everything takes to the air… emergency dive is not just for submarines!

  7. DSM

    Of course, the Soviets couldn’t build better planes on their own. If they did Clint Eastwood would steal it. “You must think in Russian.” I loved that movie as a kid!

    1. Hognose Post author

      The Soviets have built some great planes, and the best of them are world-class in performance but so easy to maintain African air forces can do it. (The last Western planes that passed that test were British: Canberra, Hunter and Gnat, and the French Mirage III).

      1. DSM

        Oh, of course. Their Super Flankers can bring the hurt in air to air and even their venerable Mig-29s have been getting upgrades to keep them relevant.
        The whole conversation made me think of Firefox and watching it as a kid in the theater. There’s a movie review to keep in reserve.

      2. John M.

        As we found out in ’79 when Iran went from friendly to unfriendly in the span of a heartbeat, forcing (currently-) friendly nations to buy into a service contract in addition to just buying the hardware has its advantages.

        -John M.

  8. Fred2

    Everybody steals design & manufacturing ideas from Everyone.

    Lession 1 of Practical Engineering. Steal from the Best.

    As the Germans learned from the T34 amongst other russian products, it looks crude but the important bits are well done, and if your Tank life expectancy is <2hours there's no point in making the non mission critical stuff fancy or long lived.

    It's like the AK-47 or the STEN, they are crude high tolerance weapons…except where it counts, and they get the job done.

    1. Hognose Post author

      T-34 and Sherman M-4 production both ran to 35,000 units. Panther (best German tank) maybe 5,500, and it was less reliable than its Russian or American counterparts.

    2. Tam

      Some of the tidbits from the Korean War era report on the T-34/85 struck me as interesting, such as a cooling system that lost multiple quarts of capacity to a very ничего job of radiator soldering.

  9. Jacobs

    During my California Public School education, when we weren’t being taught how the Underground Railroad won the Revolutionary War, how George Washington Carver discovered electricity, and how MLK was the most important person in the 20th Century, we were taught how Joseph McCarthy was a lunatic and there were absolutely no Communists in America. Yeah, right. Even sixteen year old me wondered, “If there were none, why are you so worried about proving it?”

    1. Hognose Post author

      My nephew went to good public schools, but in his first five years of grade school they had at least a week of hagiography and celebration of Martin Luther King every year. They also teach that conservative Republicans opposed King. (Actually, the segregationists were Democrats at the time, and northern liberal Democrats and northern Republicans were a bipartisan civil rights bloc in Congress). Like most young people today, he will leave school with a conviction that King was the greatest and most consequential American ever, and knowing little about Washington except that he was an evil slave owner. That is not only unfair to Washington, a fascinating and complex character, but quite unfair to the fascinating and complex character that was King.

      It’s almost as if they taught the Roman Empire and focused on, say, Claudius and not Caesar or Augustus. (Mind you, made a great book by Robert Graves and a decent miniseries with Derek Jacoby. But that’s learning Rome backwards, and you do better if, like Graves, you start off knowing who was who, and what who did to whom).

      1. Buckaroo

        MLK was a cultural marxist/communist operative with profound moral and ethical shortcomings. Two of the white prostitutes he frequented were with him in his motel room when he was assassinated. People think he was assassinated by the FBI, but a more logical conclusion is he was assassinated by his own handlers. Cleaned up a rapidly fraying loose end, and even better, nobody questions the moral turpitude, dubious credentials, or treasonous associations of a “race martyr”.

    2. John M.

      Along these lines, @Hognose, how could you mention Communist spying and not mention that the Real Victims of Communist spying were the Hollywood types who were forced to work under pseudonyms for, like, a decade or something! Get with The Narrative! McCarthy was the real villain of the Cold War!

      -John M.

  10. Larry Kaiser

    I recall reading somewhere that the effort to copy the B29 included reproducing the patches that covered battle damage that the B29 had suffered during previous missions.

    1. Hognose Post author

      True, Larry. Supposedly, Tupolev himself argued against it and was told, “Comrade Stalin says copy it exactly.” Tupolev did it. He had spent significant time in the Gulag by then — he has designed the Tu-2 bomber while incarcerated, and when he said he couldn’t design a plane without his key engineers they were thrown in pokey with him, too — and was determined to make Stalin proud. (He was fully restored to honors during the war, and never again was in trouble).

      At the time the Soviets did not admit the Tu-2 was a copy. For example, in Gallai’s Khruschchev-era memoir the plane is presented as an entirely Soviet advancement. Now, Russian historians are comfortable with the achievement of such an amazing copy. (Japanese engineers, including Akio Morita who would later lead Sony, thought they were at aviation technology parity until they examined a crashed B-29. Ordered to copy it, they had to tell their command that they didn’t even know where to start, there were so many systems beyond Japanese industrial capability. Morita went on to work on an infrared-guided missile, but hadn’t gotten to the necessity to cool the seeker before the war ended and he started a new career as a civilian, to the benefit of the whole world).

    2. T. O'Reilly

      I recall reading something similar, along the lines of the Tu-4 having an unnecessary weld that was copied from a repair on one of the captured B-29s. I’ve always wondered about that since they captured multiple examples – perhaps it was a fatigue point and they all had it?

      1. Hognose Post author

        As the video explains, they had three intact planes. They used one for flightcrew training and took one completely apart for reverse engineering and to serve as patterns.

  11. Pingback: WeaponsMan: Stealing The B-29 | Western Rifle Shooters Association

  12. Keith

    I watched that and it was a good compilation of what I guess was several separate episodes. At the beginning they left out one more significance to the date 6/5/44, the fall of the first Axis capital, Rome.

    That sign was a nice find unfortunately you have open it in a new window to read it. It’s sideways. We need something similar today in reference to the current clear and present dangers.

    Nice work sir and welcome back.

    Keep your powder dry and your faith in God.

  13. RostislavDDD

    The Soviet Union already had experience of “reverse engineering”. Licensed DC-3 was restated group Lisunov engineer.
    With copy В-29 related a funny story. Even when the machine began to take shape in the metal, Tupolev proposed to improve its construction.
    Stalin looked at him, puffed on his pipe, and said:
    – We do not need your improvements. Copy the construction such a what is.
    Stalin was a murderer and paranoid, but he was no fool. :)
    Tupolev, and Gulag, it is a complicated story. In the camps Tupolev was not.
    One of the problems of life under Stalin, was popup everywhere people-monsters. Tupolev was one of them.
    Before his arrest, he was almost a monopoly in the design of heavy aircraft, do not hesitate to crush the competition. weight level Tupolev – he even designed the torpedo boats. Type SH-4 and G-5. Very bad show themselves in war.
    The level of arrogance Tupolev. The representative of the customer (the Red Air Force) requires a report when the plane put gun to protect the back-bottom. Design answer
    -When You on your ass, eyes grow.

    1. Hognose Post author

      In the 1930s many US and European industrial firms sold entire factories to the Soviet Union. I worked for a firm that shipped thousands of grinding machine to the USSR, and one day in the late 1980s we got a letter from a guy in Murmansk or somewhere up there: “Thank you for your great machines, we are still using them in my factory fifty years later.” Of course everybody knows about Ford and Fiat, and the USSR purchased the license for the DC-3. The Li-2 had more powerful Russian engines, and later, a gun turret. We never put such a thing on our transport planes… better to get maximum altitude and speed from a lighter and cleaner plane, because any fight with a fighter plane, the transport is doomed whether it is armed or not.

  14. Badger

    Have mentioned before but will provide again for those who enjoy going down the B-29 rabbit hole. While available in hard-copy on the net in various conditions, this is a pretty good unit history in PDF of a B-29 Group that went through CBI, finishing at Tinian. Worth having, with anecdotes, travails, fun times, and mission logs w/strike photos. (My personal copy is marred from where I put a circle around my Dad’s head where he stood with his crew in front of their plane; some people’s kids.)

  15. Fuel Filter.

    For a full exposition of the Soviet intrusion into our government everyone here should read Diana West’s book “American Betrayal”. That bastard Hopkins was, indeed, a Soviet agent, among many. Joe McCarthy was a saint.

    She nails it.

    And, BTW, ignore the Radosh’s and Horowitz’s denunciations. All they are are red-diaper baby, jealous neocons pissed that she nailed it.

  16. joe tentpeg

    Have heard scuttlebutt that the 2-3 years the Russkies spent reverse engineering the B-29 wasn’t that scary for the US, and may have enabled our lead in the jet age.

    In other words, the theory is that by the time the B-29 was operational, it was already obsolete, and the egg heads at the Pentagon were well on their to developing the first jet warplanes while Russia dicked around building their version of the B-29.

    1. Hognose Post author

      The late 1940s was a time of very fast advances in aviation, as both the US and the west (France and England) and the USSR had the benefit of their own advanced engineering and reams of data (and the scientists) captured from the Germans. Russian advances very quickly paralleled the Western ones, and Russian aircraft design had some very interesting features, including competing design bureaux, and the separation of aerodynamic design into a separate institute (TsAGI). The Russians were also not shy about stealing or reverse engineering. For example, a left-wing British Labor government was able to sell the USSR a quantity of Rolls Royce centrifugal flow engines, which Soviet engineers quickly copied and began improving and adapting to Soviet production techniques. (I think the specific engine was the rolls royce Nene).

      As a result, by 1950 you had the West flying the F-86 Sabre, and the East the MiG-15. The early marks were an interesting match — the MiG had better performance in almost every number (speed, altitude) except for duration and range. The MiG also had better armament for air-to-air, but it was very short-legged. The Sabre had better human interface, better visibility, and better control harmony, which meant it was easier to fly and easier to transition from one maneuver to the next. Once the pilots on both sides of the Korean War figured this out, each exploited his own plane’s strengths, with the Sabre pilots going deep into enemy territory, pursuing dogfights, and the MiGs, always hanging back over their own friendly territory, and using slashing, hit-and-run attacks under the control of ground radar controllers.

      The Western pilots were more uniformly trained. Those on the North Korean side ranged from sacrificial Norks and by-the-numbers Chinese to some really, really good Soviet WWII vets. Americans called the best pilots “honchos” (from a Japanese term) and speculated at the time that they were Russians. (The Russian pilots had to keep their participation secret for about forty years, but have since been honored).

  17. gwood

    When Ferdinand Porsche examined the first captured T-34, he recomended the Germans copy it.

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