Spying on the Soviets, With Graph Paper and a Calculator

Figuring out the specs of Cold War Soviet airplanes was educated guesswork, if you had the right tools.


During the cold war, I worked for Flight International in London. Along with my colleague Doug Richardson—every aviation magazine needs a Leica-toting, Scottish, philhellene former-teenage-apprentice-in-a-radar-factory—I was frustrated about our coverage of Soviet technology. One of our competitors was friendly with U.S. Air Force intelligence, another was getting fed snapshots of the latest aircraft from the Military Liaison Missions (MLM)—the Western allies’ legal spies in East Germany—and another employed a chap with a Russian name but a didactic manner that nailed him as Schweizerdeutsch if not German. He seemed to have a source in someone’s intelligence community. And us? We were nowhere.

We found a source who passed us the MLM pictures and plotted over pints in the Rose & Crown. I invested in some graph paper and a Sinclair Cambridge calculator, and we got to work.

Last August, at Moscow’s MAKS airshow, a Russian colleague asked how we’d done it back then, working from a photo or two to generate a rough three-view drawing and calculate performance. I told him there were no rules, because intelligence analysts were usually the only people who ever tried. But if you knew the basic dimensions, there were some graphics tricks that could get you to the right shape. Next you drew in where things like the engine, cockpit, and landing gear went. The remaining spaces contained fuel.

There were wins, losses, and draws, plus a few lessons.

Everyone got the Mikoyan MiG-23 wrong. Despite its formidable appearance, the swing-wing fighter was an evil-minded aircraft—“It would accelerate until it blew up,” said one veteran of the U.S. Constant Peg evaluation program, an Air Force squadron that flew Soviet MiGs so American pilots could figure out how to defeat them. Another Constant Peg pilot told colleagues: “Most of the time, it’s trying to kill me.” Lesson: Don’t mirror-image. We’d assumed the MiG-23 was as capable as the latest Western fighters.

The Soviet speed champ, the Mikoyan MiG-25, fooled everyone as well. Our quasi-Russian rival (we called him Ivan Rippemovsky) claimed it had a 3,400-mile range at supersonic speed. Turns out the NATO radar tracks he’d based that on weren’t from MiG-25s but from the Tu-123 Yastreb spy drone (which started life as a cruise missile).

Then there was the Tupolev Tu-22M Backfire bomber. Everyone thought it was equivalent to the U.S. Air Force’s Rockwell B-1, and had a similar range. But based on the fuzzy photos at hand, the graph paper and the Cambridge disagreed. The Backfire had room for only about 50 tons of fuel, about two-thirds what everyone thought.

Or nearly everyone. Not long after we published our numbers, I got a call from a puzzled engineer at McDonnell Douglas, who wondered how we had hit the same numbers his team had. I told him about my calculator.

In 1992, the Russians brought the Tu-22M to the Farnborough International Air Show, along with a one-page handout. We’d hit the fuel capacity within five percent. Later, I found out why that McDonnell Douglas guy was so surprised: His team had been working for what he preferred to call the Culinary Institute of America, which was quarreling with the Air Force. The Air Force claimed the Backfire had intercontinental range; the CIA said it could make it with inflight refueling but could never get back.

U.S. Air Force intelligence boss Major General George Keegan threatened to mess with the F-15 program—a huge McDonnell Douglas contract—if MD’s analysts, the ones feeding the CIA, didn’t find more fuel tanks in the Russian bomber so that their conclusions matched his. CEO Sanford “Sandy” McDonnell stood his ground. Keegan went on to start the Great Space Laser Panic of ’79. And the Tu-22M did what it did best, which wasn’t strategic bombing but scaring the bejeesus out of carrier groups.

Lesson: Sometimes senior officers stretch the truth until it breaks. But the calculator tells no lies.

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