Key point: China is not the only nation known for successfully reverse-engineering other countries' military equipment.
Few aircraft have as great a mark on history as the B-29, the pencil-shaped American four-engine bomber that dropped the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
What’s less well known is that the Soviet Union had its own B-29—as in, literally the same airplane, in all but a few respects. And like its American counterpart, this duplicate B-29 would deliver the Soviet Union’s first air-dropped nuclear weapon.
In World War I, Russia pioneered the use of heavy bombers when it successfully fielded enormous Sikorsky-designed Ilya Muromets four-engine biplanes against Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. The concept soon spread to all the major warring powers, and was elaborated into a doctrine of strategic bombing after the war. Strategic bombers are large aircraft that carry heavy bomb loads over great distances to hit strategic targets behind enemy lines such as factories, oil refineries, bridges and rail yards—or, as occurred frequently in World War I and II, urban population centers.
By World War II, however, the Soviet Air Force (the VVS) was largely a tactical air arm focused on hitting targets close to the frontline. The VVS only fielded ninety-three new four-engine Pe-8 strategic bomber during the war, while England and the United States deployed thousands of heavy bombers.
The United States’ most expensive weapons program during World War II was the development of the ultimate strategic bomber, the B-29 Superfortress. The B-29 exceeded its predecessors in speed, range and bomb load. It also featured remote-controlled defensive machine-gun turrets, while the eleven-man crew benefited from a fully pressurized crew compartment.
The new B-29s were deployed to the Pacific theater starting in 1944, where their great range allowed them to launch raids on the Japanese home islands—ultimately including the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the even deadlier firebombing of Tokyo. The first units operated out of bases in southern China until the United States captured island bases closer to the Japan.
At the time, the Soviet Union was receiving aircraft from the United States through the Lend-Lease program, so Moscow twice requested that the United States send over B-29s. Washington declined.