After the momentous conclusion of World War 2, the U.S. and the Soviet Union found themselves in extremely strong and hard fought positions over a smoldering Europe and war-torn Asia. Their wartime partnership then became a tense rivalry which would eventually become framed as a struggle between the forces of capitalism against communism. Tensions would give rise to confrontations and flare ups as a cold chess game played out on the world stage, with lesser nations used as pawns in this quest for domination.
Aviation during the Cold War was an equally interesting and fascinating time in aviation, as it was the period where the advances made during WWII were exploited at the maximum, yielding very interesting machines and new technologies. This period began with the experiment of new structures, wings and power-plants; it ended with the introduction of stealth technology, better avionics, digitalized flight, fly-by-wire and even the delta-wing. The fact that explains such relatively fast development is the fact that the Cold War was not only a competition for strategic position in geopolitical terms between the United States and the Soviet Union; it was also a technological race to keep the upper hand and have better preparedness in case of war.
The top class air assets were the American North American F-86 Sabre, The Soviet Mig-15, the Swedish Saab J-29 Tunnan and the Dassault M.D.450 Ouragan. The Korea War was the first conflict were jet-propelled fighters fought each other in the skies between two classic rivals, the F-86 Sabre vs. The Mig-15. Further conflicts, like the Vietnam War, the Arab-Israeli Wars, the India-Pakistan Wars and even the Falklands War had as a result that both sides developed further new and more capable air assets, not to mention the sole prospect of a direct confrontation between both Superpowers. These conflicts also asked for the development of new techniques and combat tactics, either by direct learning or by learning from the experiences acquired by allies and satellite states. Reverse engineering was not uncommon, by the way. Yet the new jet-propelled fighter were having shortcomings of their own: manoeuvrability was lost at the expense of speed, and the space required for taking-off, not to mention the high amount of fuel consumption, were both high. The strategic requirements of the Cold War forces the two superpowers to develop further strategic bombers (it must be pointed out that by the start of the Cold War, strategic bombing were an almost exclusive of both the US and the UK) so to be able to strike deep – with nuclear assets. The results were the well-known Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, the Convair B-36 Peacemaker (with propeller-jet engine propulsion systems), the North American XB-70 Valkyrie, The Rockwell B-1B Lancer and the impressive Northrop Grumman B-2. Other interesting bombers were the Tupolev 95 and 142 Bear with propellers, the Tupolev 16 Badger, the Tupolev 22, and the Tupolev 160 Blackjack. The UK also kept its share in the strategic bombing area, with the Avro Vulcan, the Handley-Page Victor (later refitted into a tanker), and the Vickers Valiant; all were having a delta-wing configuration, hence their nickname as the ‘V-bombers’.
Another technological advance sparked by the Cold War and the development of strategic bombers was the interceptor, whose missions would be latter incorporated into those the fighter (Sweden and France were the nations that developed the most remarkable fighter-interceptor planes). These were the type of planes that exploited the ‘avionics’, as their mission required advanced electronics to take on the equally advanced nuclear strategic bombers. The most remarkable interceptors are the BAC Lighting and the Mig 25 Foxbat, and the lesser known Convair Delta Dagger. The V/STOL concept, which had its roots in WWII, was maximized with the introduction of the Hawker-Siddley Harrier and the less successful Yakovlev 38 Forger. In addition, the introduction of new propulsion technologies gave way to the rocket or missile-based AA defences, which made attack and reconnaissance missions very dangerous: hence the development of stealth technology and fast speed aiplanes like the Lockheed SR-71, with high altitude being also an option giving way to the Lockheed U-2 Dragon lady. Surveillance of air and land required for the introduction of new assets and technologies, like specialized electronic reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft and ‘flying radars’: The Boeing E-3 and the Illyushin A-50 AWACS planes, the RC-135 among others. The new technologies had also implications in the naval aspect, such as the need to the increase of the decks in the aircraft carriers as the new jets required more space to land and take off. Or the replacement of the guns as main weapons for air-to-air-and air to surface missiles to arm the warships. Even the submarines were fitted with capacities to launch cruiser and/or ballistic missiles.
Similarly, missiles, advanced rockets and even intercontinental ballistic missiles witnessed further development by taking advantage of technologies developed back in WWII. And, interestingly, this is also the period in which drones began to be further developed and operated, although in limited quantities, setting the bases for the current advanced drones currently in use.
A last innovation having born in WWI yet exploited during the Cold War was the helicopter, with the Korea War, the anti-submarine vigilance at the North Atlantic and the Vietnam War being the wars were it became a remarkable asset. It began as a liaison, reconnaissance and light attack; evolving to transport, antisubmarine (on board Destroyer and Frigates mainly), gunship and anti-tank.
And last but not least, the Cold War gave way to the space race, which took advantage of the rocket technologies developed in the 40’s and took the man onto the Space and the Moon, giving also way to the space shuttle.