Fiddlin’ around

by Dr. Marshall Michel
52nd Fighter Wing historian

In the mid-1950s the Soviet Union faced a huge challenge with its air defense system. The steady improvement of America’s nuclear strategic bomber force promised to stretch the Soviet air defenses so much they would have huge gaps, especially in the Soviet Arctic area from Norway to Alaska, for bombers to slip in.

To counter this, the Soviet Air Defense Force (Protivo Vozdushnaya Oborona Strany, or PVO Strany), tasked the Soviet design bureaus to develop a very long range interceptor to patrol the north’s several thousand kilometers of mostly uninhabited tundra. Smaller, short range point defense interceptors, like the MiG-21, were to cover the major target areas.

The new long range interceptor was to carry the largest radar possible (at that time the larger the antenna and longer the range), very long range air-to-air missiles. It was to have a range of 1,500 miles, a patrol duration of three hours and a “sprint” speed of Mach 1.5 to make an interception.

The Tupolev Design Bureau, better known for its large bombers, took the assignment and in 1958 began developing a fighter version of its unsuccessful Tu-98 supersonic bomber. The first designation was the Tu-28, changed in 1963 to Tu-128.

The Tu-28 was enormous ― 98 feet long with a wing span of 57 feet and weighing 88,000 pounds fully loaded ― making it the largest production fighter in history. It had a low mounted, sharply swept wing with the main landing gear in mid-wing mounted pods.

The two-man crew, a pilot and radar operator/navigator, were seated in tandem in a heavily framed cockpit instead of a fighter bubble canopy, showing the Tu-128’s bomber origins. The fuselage used “area rule” to reduce drag at high subsonic cruising speeds and slotted flaps to improve take-off/landing performance.

The power plants were two fuselage mounted Lyuolka AL-7F-2 engines that produced 16,000 pounds of thrust in military power and 22,000 in afterburner. To optimize the air flow into the engines in various flight regimes, variable two-shock air intakes with moving semi-cone shaped central bodies were mounted in the front of the intakes.

For operating in the trackless Arctic regions, the Tu-128 carried navigation and communications avionics from the Tu-16 long-range bomber.

The development of the airframe and engines went rapidly and one of the prototypes made its initial public appearance in a flyby at the 1961 Tushino air parade, the favorite place for the Soviets to show their new equipment.

This prototype carried only two dummy missiles under the wings and displayed a large ventral bulge, which learned Western intelligence types speculated was a large radar set that would give the Tu-28 – given the NATO code name “Fiddler” – a mini-AWACS role. In fact, the bulge was filled with test equipment and did not appear on production aircraft.

Once in service, the Fiddler carried a RP-S Smerch (Tornado) radar with a detection range of about 30 miles and a lock-on range of about 25 miles, and four Bisnovat R-4 air-to-air missiles (NATO name AA-5 “Ash”) on underwing pylons.
Like the Fiddler, the ASH was large ― more than 17 feet long and weighing more than 1,000 pounds, with a 115-pound warhead and a range of about 19 miles. The usual weapons load was two semi-active radar homing R-4Rs on the outer pylons and two infrared R-4Ts on the inner pylons, and tactical doctrine called for firing one of each at the target.

With its high wing loading, load limit of 2.5G, unsophisticated but reliable avionics, and poor cockpit visibility, the Tu-128 was not capable of dog fighting, but performed yeoman service in the Soviet Union’s northern tier until replaced by the MiG-31 Foxhound.

(For questions or comments, contact Dr. Michel at