There have been moments in history when actual events have progressed like cannoning dominoes, only to be aborted right at the brink of Armageddon. One such event occurred in the early autumn of 1969, a month after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.
It had all actually begun that spring, when a group of 30 Chinese PLA soldiers waded through the chill, waist-deep waters of the Ussuri, onto a disputed 1 ½ mile long diamond-shaped spit of an island in the middle of the river, that was called Zhenbao by the Chinese and Damansky by the Russians.
Once on the island the Chinese soldiers engaged the KGB Border Guards, sparking off a series of skirmishes, that collectively came to be known as the Zhenbao incident.
I Google-earthed Zhenbao island. Here it is, with Russia on the right banks and China on the left. At 46 degrees north of the equator, this is a frozen barren hell-hole which is just 1.50 miles long. In spring, the flooding caused by melting ice sometimes submerges the island completely. The border is supposed to cut right through it. (Photo courtesy: Google Earth)
If you would like to know why two communist powers were scrapping at the height of the cold war, it’s a long story, one that I would not like to go into right at this moment. Let’s just say that it was an ideological divide coupled with a border dispute that had simmered on, right from the time of the early 19th century Tsar Alexander III. And as always, culture and race too played a huge role in why those two, in spite of being communists, hated each other’s guts.
There is no question though, that the whole affair had been orchestrated by the Chinese leader, Mao Tse Tung, to deliver an indirect message to the US that, by breaking with the USSR, China was prepared to begin normalizing relations with the US, a process that later came to be known as the Sino-US Rapprochement.
Dying, senselessly, a grievously injured Chinese infantryman being dragged by his comrade away from the line of fire. The Zhenbao Incident, April 1969 (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)
Then, in the middle of August 1969, a startling thing happened. It was at a lunch at the Hotel America’s Beef and Bird Restaurant in Washington DC, the meeting having been proposed by Boris N. Davydov (Second Secretary, Embassy of the USSR) with William L. Stearman (Special Assistant for North Vietnam, Department of State). Davydov was paying. His proposal was pretty straightforward……
“We plan to bomb the Chinese, especially their nuclear installations, back to stone-age in a pre-emptive strike, to eliminate any further threat on our southern borders. If you go along, you have two pluses – First, you will benefit from at least one toothless communist power and second, we will lay off Vietnam here on. We didn’t like those gooks anyway.”
For once, the US acted with maturity. It declined the offer and cautioned the Soviets that any pre-emptive strike could start a nuclear conflagration and that was totally unacceptable.
What the Americans (or the world) could not have known was that the Soviet proposal was actually an intimation, not a proposal at all. The pre-emptive strike was already on. Here is what could well have happened………….
1225th Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment
Belaya Long Range Aviation Base
Irkutsk Oblast, U.S.S.R
August 19, 1969
The Bear taxied to the end of the 3-mile long asphalt and made a sweeping u-turn before it lined itself up with its nose gear right on the white median line. Its commander, Col. Anton Babayev, was a patient man. He waited, his hand on the throttle and right foot on the brakes, eyes impassive, now completely accustomed to amber green glow of the cockpit.
Straight ahead, the pitch darkness was punctured by two strings of blue runway lights that seemed to converge into a blurry point at the far distance. Beside him, his co-pilot, reed-thin Maj. Illya Molodchi, leaned forward a little and then turned his head sideways till he was staring at the swept-back, slightly drooping right wing, weighted down by the two Kuznetsov-12Ms, the most powerful turbo-prop engines ever developed.
Right now, the Kuznetsovs were barely ticking over at a sedate 600 rpm but already the contra-rotating propeller sets were deafening, their roar penetrating even heavily sound-insulated ear pads in the crews’ helmets. When the propellers reached 1200rpm, the Bear would be cruising at .85 times the speed of sound.
To put the Bear’s speed in perspective, regular commercial jets travel at .80 mach. This made the Bear the fastest turbo-prop on the planet, which it is even today, being still in service with the Russian Strategic Air Command. The Russians, when they see something that works, they stick with it. Tu-95 Bears have been around and going strong even today.
Contra-Rotating Propellers on a Tu-95 Bear (CRPs, as they are known in the aviation world), are a product of Soviet aviation genius, with two propellers on the same axis, coupled by a planetary gear to make them rotate in opposite directions, the second prop a bit smaller than the one in front. Between them, the two propellers cuddle and coax the onrushing airflow and shove it backward with the thrust of 15000 Arabian horses. CRPs provide greater fuel efficiency, higher speeds and more power. (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)
CRPs were just one of many Soviet technological advances. In science and technology, they were crawling with geniuses. Unfortunately they were, like the American saying goes, all dressed up but nowhere to go. Soviet scientists worked within a government structure that did nothing to motivate them to apply their scientific innovations to practical use. Brilliant research papers sat forgotten on shelves.
Likewise, Radio Transparent Technology (Stealth) was gathering dust on some forgotten cupboard in the Soviet Academy of Sciences, until the imploding Soviet Union spilt it’s secrets like a vanquished T-Rex sprawled on the ground, its guts spilling out.
Every victory has it’s spoils and the fall of communism was no different. In the chaos of the latter half of the Gorbachev years, the Soviet Union leaked secrets like a sieve. Everything was up for a price. An engineer at the Lockheed Advanced Development Projects (a.k.a. Skunk Works), got his hands on a Russian scientific paper and said, ‘Hey that’s easy. We could do something like that’ and before long, the world had its first stealth fighter, the F117.
But I digress. Let’s get back to Col. Babayev and his crew.
Standing frozen at the end of the strip, the giant bomber thrummed and grumbled as it strained against its leash, the effort to stay still sending shuddering vibrations through it’s air-frame. Outside the night was moonless and the air surprisingly still, almost as if nature had decided to pause and bear witness to what was about to happen.
Tonight, the Bear would need all the power her Kuznetsovs packed, just to clear the runway. She had a passenger with a one-way ticket, a teardrop-shaped metal object weighing in at just over 22 tons.
Russians love giving names to inanimate objects and so the passenger too had a name – Kuzkina Tetya (Kuzka’s Aunt).
(to be continued…)