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Secrets Behind Soviet Intercontinental Bomber Revealed

Aired January 25, 2001 - 4:39 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOIE CHEN: The Cold War, of course, is long gone, but many historians are still looking back and learning more about it. Now a big mystery from the era been solved.

We go to Washington and CNN national security correspondent David Ensor for more on that mystery -- David.

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, the mystery was, how did the Soviets come up with a strategic bomber so quickly? We knew part of it, we knew the outlines, but now we know the details.

What happened was, that some American pilots who had been bombing Japanese targets got into trouble and had to make emergency landings, and did so in Vladivostok in Siberia -- in the Far East of Russia; their assumption being that the Soviet Union was allied with the U.S. against the Germans and would, therefore -- it would be a safe to land.

They guessed wrong; the B-29s were impounded by the Soviets and then Stalin ordered that one of them be taken apart piece by piece -- here we see a B-29 coming in for a landing. This was the workhorse, super-fortress -- one of the workhorses, bombers of the American fleet.

One of those planes was taken apart piece by piece by the Russians. And here you see a photograph courtesy of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum that shows that process; 105,000 different parts. And Stalin ordered that, within two years the whole thing had to be taken apart and reproduced down to the millimeter.

So that was done, and the result was the Tupolev-4 bomber which became the mainstay strategic bomber of the Soviet fleet. There it is -- it's identical. So when American military personnel first saw it flying at an air show over Moscow they thought they were seeing American planes; then they suddenly realized these were copies -- exact copies.

And that gave the Russians a strategic bomber that could -- at least in principle -- reach the United States. Just a few years later they came up with a nuclear weapon, so this was an important strategic move for them -- to give them a way to deliver that weapon, at least in theory, over the U.S. It changed the balance of power in the world. Now, those planes didn't have enough fuel to come back, so hitting the U.S. with those planes in those days would have been a suicide mission.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stalin decided, with Barry (ph) at his elbow, to enforce compliance and high priority that this bomber would be copied in one year and manufactured in two. And what he wanted to do was close a vulnerability with the West, to have an intercontinental, long-rage bomber equal to the B-29. And this became even more crucial after 1949 with the advent of the first Soviet atomic weapon.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ENSOR: Joie, the only thing they couldn't reproduce was the tires, so they bought those at war surplus afterwards.

CHEN: All right; a little fact from history. David Ensor, our national security correspondent from Washington for us today.

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