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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nuclear Bombers Carried 'Dummies'

For fear of a catastrophic accident, the U.S.S.R. never carried real nuclear missiles aboard its long-range bombers during patrols and exercises, according to a top Russian air force official. "We never flew with nuclear weapons, only with dummies which imitated them," Major General Anatoly Solovyev, deputy commander of the long-range air force, told the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta. The statement, if accurate, suggests that the Soviet Union adopted a more cautious approach to its airborne nuclear missiles than its principal enemy of the Cold War. By contrast, the United States kept planes in the air with real nuclear weapons from the late 1950s to the mid 1960s, according to Michael O'Hanlon, a nuclear expert at the U.S. Congressional Budget Office's National Security Division. The practice came to an end after several accidents occurred, including one in which a plane's bomb doors were inadvertently opened, causing a bomb to drop near Spain. It did not explode. The Literaturnaya Gazeta article cited the possibility of such accidents as a primary reason for not keeping nuclear missiles in the air. A crash or accidental release is not likely to explode a nuclear device, but could cause a dangerous radiation leak such as the one that occurred at the Chernobyl reactor in 1986, nuclear specialists say. Other experts also say there was Soviet concern about their pilots defecting with nuclear weapons in tow. "It might be too dangerous to have somebody fly with these weapons because they might decide to fly somewhere else," a Western embassy official said. Added O'Hanlon: "They were certainly very cautious about assigning too much independence to that level of wing commander or bomber pilot." Because of the secrecy of the Soviet armed forces, many Western experts say they did not know what their adversaries were carrying on their long-range bombers. Several Russian bomber pilots quoted in the article said they were themselves unsure whether or not they were flying actual nuclear weapons, since the dummies looked the same as the real thing. "There's so much work on board that you never think of whether or not you have rockets under your fuselage," one pilot told the newspaper. Several Western experts contacted Friday contested Solovyev's claim. The skeptics said that as a safety precaution against a first-strike attack the Soviets were likely to have kept some nuclear-armed planes in the air. "I find that incredible and I don't believe it," said Gus Dellow, an air-power expert at Sandhurst College -- Britain's equivalent of West Point. "What you don't want is all your bombers destroyed on the ground." A spokesman for the Defense Ministry said Friday he was unable to comment. Since the mid 1960s the U.S. has dealt with the possibility of an attack against the bombers by keeping its B-52 bombers on runway alert, ready to fly on the shortest of notices armed with nuclear missiles. Solovyev said the U.S.S.R. also had planes on ready alert.nuclear device, but could cause a dangerous radiation leak such as the one that occurred at the Chernobyl reactor in 1986, nuclear specialists say. Other experts also say there was Soviet concern about their pilots defecting with nuclear weapons in tow. "It might be too dangerous to have somebody fly with these weapons because they might decide to fly somewhere else," a Western embassy official said. Added O'Hanlon: "They were certainly very cautious about assigning too much independence to that level of wing commander or bomber pilot." Because of the secrecy of the Soviet armed forces, many Western experts say they did not know what their adversaries were carrying on their long-range bombers. Several Russian bomber pilots quoted in the article said they were themselves unsure whether or not they were flying actual nuclear weapons, since the dummies looked the same as the real thing. "There's so much work on board that you never think of whether or not you have rockets under your fuselage," one pilot told the newspaper. Several Western experts contacted Friday contested Solovyev's claim. The skeptics said that as a safety precaution against a first-strike attack the Soviets were likely to have kept some nuclear-armed planes in the air. "I find that incredible and I don't believe it," said Gus Dellow, an air power expert at Sandhurst College -- Britain's equivalent of West Point. "What you don't want is all your bombers destroyed on the ground." A spokesman for the Defense Ministry said Friday he was unable to comment as to whether Moscow once kept bombs in the air or not. Since the mid 1960s the U.S. has dealt with the possibility of an attack against the bombers by keeping its B-52 bombers on runway alert, ready to fly on the shortest of notices armed with nuclear missiles. Solovyev said the U.S.S.R. also had planes on ready alert, although he said the missiles would have to be attached prior to take off, which would add to preparation time. Soviet airmen only handled actual nuclear weapons during tests on the ground in which they raced to install them onto the planes, the aviation official said. Because the Soviet Union placed much greater emphasis on its ICBM land-based forces, its bombers played a far less significant role in its overall arsenal than in the United States, according to Western military experts. In 1987, just as the Cold War was coming to a close, the U.S. had 361 bombers carrying 5,070 warheads, compared to the Soviet's 165 bombers and just 860 warheads. By contrast, the Soviet had almost three times as many warheads as the U.S. in land-based ICBM silos, according to the National Resources Defense Council.