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Russia to possibly re-use Soviet-era Miassichtchev M-55 Mystic B for reconnaissance over Ukraine.

| 2023

Russia is believed to envisage the reintroduction of the old Soviet-Era Miassichtchev M-55 Mystic B surveillance aircraft for observation missions over Ukraine. In the 1950s, Laurent Lagneau reminds us in Opex 360, the US Air Force initiated the Genitrix program, which involved sending stratospheric balloons beyond the reach of existing air defense systems and fighter planes over the Soviet Union and China for intelligence purposes. This led to a race between the US and the Soviet Union to develop advanced reconnaissance capabilities.

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Russia to possibly re use Soviet era M55 Mystic B sply plane over Ukraine Soviet-Era Miassichtchev M-55 Mystic B surveillance aircraft  (Picture source: Vitaly V. Kuzmin – CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Soviets were determined to find a solution to counter the American stratospheric reconnaissance efforts. Despite their initial efforts being in vain, a breakthrough came after the recovery of a downed American U2 spy plane in the Ural region, brought down by a barrage of fourteen S-75 Dvina missiles. This incident prompted the Soviet high command to consider creating an armed copy of the U2, named the S-13, with the development entrusted to the Beriev company. However, the project was abruptly abandoned in 1962.

Five years later, the Kremlin ordered research into a new subsonic combat aircraft capable of flying in the stratosphere. This research led to the development of the M-17 Stratosfera (or Mystic A), although its first prototype crashed during an unauthorized test flight in 1978.

Officially, the first flight of the M-17 took place on May 26, 1982. However, the program was once again abandoned before being revived under the designation M-55 (or Mystic B), primarily for reconnaissance missions. It is believed that between two and five of these aircraft were built.

Since the end of the Cold War, these M-55 "Geophysica" aircraft have mainly been used for scientific research, despite remaining under the ownership of the Russian aerospace forces, which still regard them as reconnaissance planes. They have contributed to various research projects, including the study of polar clouds in the Arctic and climate research conducted by European institutes.

Recently, there have been indications that these M-55 aircraft may be returning to military service. Open-source photographs showed one of them equipped with a Knirti UKR-RT pod, typically used by Russian tactical bombers for electronic intelligence missions. This suggests that the M-55s may be used for reconnaissance and intelligence purposes over Ukrainian territory or beyond.

The British Ministry of Defence has acknowledged this possibility, stating that "Russia is likely considering bringing back the high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft M-55 Mystic B from the Soviet era." The M-55's ability to fly at high altitudes provides a significant advantage for intelligence-gathering missions. The British MoD suggests that this resurgence could be due to Russia's challenges in establishing adequate intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capabilities.

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