Strategic Bomber & Missile Platform
(Soviet Military Air Forces – Long Range Aviation)
Tuesday, August 19, 1969 – 02:15 hrs
The passenger on board the Bear, Kuzkina Tetya, was so named after her illustrious twin, Kuzkina Mat, who had made a similar one-way flight eight years prior. Some say Mat was given her name by none other than the Soviet Communist Party General Secretary, Nikita Khrushchev.
The story goes that when the Americans tested what was for them, their most powerful thermonuclear device, an H-Bomb that was code-named Castle Bravo and had an yield of 15 megatons, the Soviets gave it a name of their own – Kuzka, a derogatory reference commonly used in Russia those days, roughly translated in English as ‘pipsqueak’.
Khrushchev is reported to have sneered at the American test derisively at a Politburo meeting, “My obirayemsya pokazat’ im Kuz’kina mat!” (That’s it? 15 Megatons? Well we are going to show them Kuzka’s mother).
And Kuzka’s mother she certainly turned out to be. Equivalent of the simultaneous explosion of 58,000,000 tons of TNT, ten times the power of all the bombs dropped in the Second World War and the energy released equal to 1.4% the power output of the Sun, her mushroom cloud 64 kms high and 40 kms in diameter and her shockwave travelling round the earth three times, breaking windows, cracking foundations as far as Marseilles. Over the years, Kuzkina Mat also got to be called by many other names, including Tsar Bomba and Big Ivan.
The tower broke in over the whine of the Kuznetsovs, the voice over the radio sounding disembodied and almost casual, “Eto dvizheniye. Tetya Dobycha Kuz’kina yedet priyatno i legko , Polkovnik . Udachi.” (It’s a go. Drop Kuzka’s Aunt off and get the hell out of there, Colonel. She has bad breath. Good luck).
Babayev chuckled. “Spasibo , derzhat’ vodku okhlazhdennoy (Thank you, I am not the one who’s going to kiss her ass. Just keep the vodka chilled and stop worrying about us),” he said, as his right hand tightened its grip over the throttle lever and slid it forward while at the same time, his foot came off the brakes.
The Tu-95 heaved, as if in relief and then swerved momentarily, as though it was caught by surprise. It’s nose veered off the median line for a moment, before it regained its heading and charged down the asphalt, slowly accelerating as it raced toward the other end of the runway.
120 knots…130…140…150… the massive bomber labored to reach the magic figure – 200 knots, while the far-end perimeter fence and the south-side guard tower dead ahead, rushed forward to embrace it.
“If we are going by road, don’t you think we ought to slow down a bit, Boss?” Illya was known in the base for his understatements and his wry humor.
Babayev grinned, “Hang on, Illya, the Bear can fly us to the moon if she wants to. Here we go.”
(A Soviet pilot would never refer to his plane by it’s Nato call sign, in this case ‘Bear’ for the Tu-95. This is just a fictionalization of real events).
The bomber staggered up into the air, the four Kuznetsovs screaming on full throttle. As soon as he felt it leave the asphalt, Babayev retracted the landing gear, afraid it might snag against the perimeter fence otherwise. The belly of the Bear cleared the fence with only a few meters to spare. Thankfully, the land around the base had been razed flat, so there was no possibility of hitting a tree or a phone line.
Once off the ground the Tu-95 labored on, at a 20° tilt until it leveled off finally at 37000 feet, its nose pointed southward. After a while, everything went black as the world’s largest fresh water lake, the Baikal, slid by 7 miles below.
Once over Mongolia, the bomber would gain a further mile up before settling at 42000 feet. Thirty minutes out, the Bear made a slight course change to south-easterly as it entered Mongolian airspace and continued speeding along like a silver dart, eight miles above the barren steppes. It was going to be a nice two and half hour flight, the last one and quarter hour inside Chinese airspace.
The Bear was not alone. There were four others, strategic bombers, all of them – two Badgers(Tu-16s) and two Blinkers(Tu-22s). Like the Bear, they were sneaking into Chinese airspace from different directions that very minute. The first Tu-16 had launched from the 444th Heavy Bombardment Wing at Spassk-Dalniy close to the China’s eastern border with the USSR and the second had scrambled from the 326th, Vozdvizhenka, a few hundred kms east of Spassk-Dalniy. The Blinkers had taken off from the 303rd at Zavitinsk in the Amur Oblast, directly north of the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator.
Like the Bear, the Badgers and the Blinkers too had passengers with deadly intent, devices similar in design to Tetya but considerably smaller in weight and yield – around 8 Megatons each. 8 Megatons isn’t puny exactly. 8 Megatons can wipe out a large metropolis like Mumbai and its suburbs.
The others had names too. Sestra was going to hit a plutonium extraction facility in Guangyuan and Dyadya would vaporize a warhead assembly plant at Harbin. Devushka would obliterate the Heiping Gas Diffusion Plant with it’s adjoining experimental reactor, while Babushka annihilated Chengdu, home of China’s gas centrifuges that spun at 30000 rpm, enriching uranium to 98% weapons-grade purity. Hopefully, Babushka’s blast and fallout would lay waste to even the Chengdu Aircraft Industry which had painstakingly reverse-engineered the Chengdu J-7, a replica of the legendary Mig-21 jet fighter-interceptors, a squadron of which the Soviets themselves had gifted them just two years prior.
And now about Kuzkina Tetya herself, the device that Col. Babayev and his crew were babysitting to target. It was a classic three-stage Teller–Ulam design, using a fission bomb primary to compress a thermonuclear secondary, as in most H-bombs, and then using the energy from the resulting explosion to compress a much larger third thermonuclear stage.
Tetya was not an identical twin to her elder sis, actually. Kuzkina Mat had only one third stage while Tetya had in total eight third stages, that would go off one behind the other, the intervals of course being in pico-seconds. This was going to be one big party for those frenzied neutrons. And while she would detonate in the atmosphere just as her predecessor had done, 2 miles above the earth, Tetya would have 12 million living and breathing souls directly below, in one of the world’s most populous cities – China’s capital, Beijing.
There was another more significant difference…….
The 1961 detonation of Kuzkina Mat had been a test, planned over Soviet territory, a barren ice-bound archipelago called Novaya Semlya, way above the Arctic Circle. Still, concern over the fallout and the ecological damage to whole swathes of the Soviet far north, had prompted them to install lead tampers at the second and third fusion stages.
Those lead tampers restricted the flow of neutrons and thus inhibited both, her destructive power and radioactive fallout. They were kind of like a tranquilizer to a hyperactive kid suffering from ADHD. The inhibited detonation also gave the crew of the delivery bomber a fighting chance to get away far enough to survive it’s effects.
Kuzkina Tetya did not need to be inhibited. She had U-238 fusion accelerators instead, that would do to the fusion reaction what anabolic steroids do to an athlete’s testosterone level. She was set to produce the same energy as a 500-meter asteroid slamming into the earth at 20 kms/second. To anyone with a seismometer within a 200 mile radius of ground zero, the resultant tremor would register 9.4 on the Richter scale
Tetya’s yield was expected to be 105 megatons, equivalent to the detonation of all the explosives that had been produced since AD 492, when a short beady-eyed Chinese alchemist discovered that saltpeter burnt with explosive force and decided to find out if he could turn it into an offensive weapon and stumbled into gunpowder. (I was just kidding about the short and beady-eyed. No one ever recorded what the alchemist looked like. Before he blew himself up).
Released from 42000 feet, Tetya was programmed to detonate the moment she fell through 11000 feet. It was not going to be a free fall. She would be slowed down by a massive 1 ½ ton parachute. The parachute would give the Bear hopefully sufficient time to make it to where it would not get knocked out of the sky by the shock-wave. Not that that mattered. The Bear (and everything inside it), was expendable, a fact that Col. Anton Babayev and his crew knew well. It was a life they had chosen, drenched in adrenalin and patriotism.
A song hovered in the periphery of Babayev’s mind, one that his late father and his comrades used to sing as they scurried out into open ground between burnt-out shells of tenements in Stalingrad 1942, in order to draw fire so that the Wehrmacht sniper’s position would be revealed……
‘Rodina-Mat zovyot! Vse za Rodinu!’ – The motherland calls! Everything for the motherland!
(to be continued…)