The Miassichtchev M-55, the Soviet's response to the U.S. U2 spy plane, could soon be soaring the Ukrainian skies again. A recent development stirring curiosity and surprise among defense experts worldwide.
In the 1950s, the U.S. Air Force initiated the Genitrix program with the mission of sending stratospheric balloons over the Soviet Union and China, aiming for reconnaissance. The Soviet forces tried to develop countermeasures, but their efforts bore no fruit.
After the retrieval of a downed U2 spy plane in the Degtiarsk region, the Soviets pondered making an armed replica, known as the S-13. This project was abruptly halted in 1962. Yet, in 1967, V.M. Miassichtchev was directed by the Kremlin to embark on research for a new subsonic combat aircraft capable of stratospheric flight.
The Birth of M-55
Thus, the M-17 Stratosfera was born. However, the first prototype met with misfortune in 1978 when it crashed during an unsanctioned test flight. The first official flight of the M-17 occurred on May 26, 1982, but this program too faced early termination, only to be resurrected as the M-55 for reconnaissance roles. An estimated two to five M-55s are thought to have been constructed.
Post the Cold War era, these aircraft served predominantly in scientific research, yet are still regarded as reconnaissance aircraft by the Russian aerospace forces. One such aircraft was deployed to examine polar clouds in the Arctic region in 2003, and another was part of the StratoClim project in 2016, involving 26 European research institutes analyzing the climate and stratosphere.
Back in Action
Recent open-source images have depicted one of these aircraft fitted with a KNIRTI UKR-RT pod, generally used by Su-34 “Fullback” tactical bombers for electronic intelligence tasks. This indicates that these M-55s could soon rejoin service as reconnaissance and intelligence aircraft for missions over Ukrainian territory. The UK Ministry of Defence hasn't discounted this possibility.
The reappearance of the M-55 in Russian forces operations could be linked to predicaments in setting up adequate intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capabilities. There seems to be a realistic chance that the M-55 could return to front-line service to fortify Russia's limited ISTAR capabilities over Ukraine. Its high-altitude flying capability enables its sensors to function at a considerable safe distance.