Following the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1953 the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev came to power as the USSR’s First Secretary in September 1953.
Facing constant tensions with the Western Bloc, the doctrine Khrushchev adopted for challenging the U.S. and its allies militarily proved unique and relied very heavily on emerging nuclear technologies. While under Stalin’s administration the USSR had sought to produce advanced weapons in all fields – both conventional and nuclear – the Khrushchev administration’s very heavy focus on its nuclear forces led to the neglect of its conventional capabilities.
Although nuclear weapons development was critical at a time when the United States was considering pre-emptive nuclear strikes on the Soviet Union, for which Soviet demonstrations of nuclear power such as detonating the 50 megaton Tsar Bomb were invaluable to deterring aggression, the neglect of conventional capabilities so painstakingly developed to a peer level under Stalin’s leadership would come to cost the USSR dearly.
One example of the consequences of neglecting conventional capabilities materialised during the Vietnam War. In prioritising nuclear weapons development the USSR had neglected the development of combat aircraft, and so fallen behind the capabilities of the United States after weapons programs under Stalin’s administration had gained parity.
This parity was demonstrated during the Korean War, where the United States and its allies had faced a serious challenge in air-to-air combat against Soviet-built MiG-15 fighters, the capabilities of which equaled and by many accounts outmatched the U.S. Air Force’s elite F-86 Sabre jets.
The momentum from these advances would last for several years past Stalin’s death – as was demonstrated by engagements between Soviet and American second-generation fighters with the MiG-21 proving overwhelmingly more capable than the American F-104 during Indo-Pakistani clashes.
Neglect for the military aviation sector in the USSR gradually took its toll, however, and the United States quickly developed advanced second and then third-generation aircraft entered which service in the early-mid 1960s which the Soviet Union did not prioritize matching.
While Khrushchev may have been correct that in a total war with the United States’ 50 megaton nuclear bombs would be far more likely to decide the outcome than a third-generation fighter jet, in small strategic conflicts advanced fighters were exactly what was required and what the Soviet arms industries were left unable to provide.
In Vietnam the United States had a significant advantage in the air which was never threatened as it had been in Korea, and North Vietnamese pilots most often had to rely on first and second generation aircraft such as the MiG-17 and MiG-21.
These had negligible beyond visual range engagement capabilities compared to the American F-4E Phantoms, with the American jets boasting around five times the engagement range, four times the endurance and sensors at least four times as powerful.
While according to their own statistics the U.S. Air Force lost roughly 2.0 aircraft per 1,000 sorties over Korea, they lost only 0.4 per 1000 in Vietnam. The tables had thus drastically turned since the Korean War period.
In the Arab-Israeli wars, following the United States’ decision to provide Israel with its advanced F-4E jets from 1967, the Soviet Union’s Arab defence clients sought fighters which could to match the Israeli Phantoms. As Egyptian General Saad Al Shazly noted, “the Soviets couldn’t give us such a fighter because they didn’t have one.
” When asked for such a capability, First Secretary Brezhnev who had by then replaced Khrushchev said that it was due to the previous government’s focus on nuclear weapons and resulting neglect of other capabilities, reassuring the Arabs that the USSR was undertaking great efforts to catch up and match American aerial warfare technologies.
Although the USSR was able to deliver third-generation fighters on par with the F-4E to its defence clients from 1974, with its formidable new MiG-23 boasting a very powerful sensor suite and a much more powerful engine than that on any rival fighter, closing the gap would take considerably more time. The U.S. pulled ahead that same year inducting its first fourth-generation fighter, the F-14 Tomcat, into service.
The USSR remained a few years behind the United States in its fighter program development for some time, with the introduction of the American F-15 and F-16 fighters in 1976 and 78 respectively providing it with fourth-generation aircraft which were cheaper than the F-14 and could be more widely exported.
The USSR would bridge the gap in the early 1980s however, with its MiG-31 Foxhound entering service in 1981 and introducing revolutionary new technologies such as a phased array radar – something no American fighter would field until 2005.
The Soviet MiG-29 and Su-27 fourth-generation fighters, which entered service in 1982 and 1985 and were acquired by the U.S. after the Cold War for testing, were widely reported by military officials to be more capable than their American counterparts of the time. The USSR also made significant progress towards fielding fifth-generation fighters with the MiG 1.44 and Su-47 programs, the former which was at a similar stage of development to its American counterpart when the state collapsed in 1991.
While the USSR did eventually bridge the gap, the fact that it was set back and left at a disadvantage for over two decades by Secretary Khrushchev’s decisions during the decisive years of the Cold War seriously disadvantaged its defence clients and undermined its standing in the third world.
The state’s collapse would ultimately allow the U.S. to regain the technological lead through sustained investment in the 1990s and early 2000s during which time Russia’s defence sector was largely in disarray.