In the 1950s, the US Air Force launched the Genitrix program, which consisted of sending stratospheric balloons – therefore beyond the reach of existing air defense systems and combat aircraft at the time – over the Union. Soviet and Chinese for intelligence purposes. Also, the Red Army tried – in vain – to find a solution…

A solution was, however, seen after the recovery of an American U2 spy plane shot down over the Degtiarsk region (Urals) by a salvo of fourteen S-75 Dvina missiles (NATO code: SA-2 Guideline) according to the version official delivered. through Moscow.

Indeed, the U2 could fly at an altitude of 21,300 meters, the Soviet general staff considered manufacturing an armed copy, under the designation S-13. Its development was entrusted to the manufacturer Beriev. This project, however, was abruptly abandoned in 1962. However, five years later, the Kremlin ordered VM Myasishchev to conduct research on a new subsonic combat aircraft capable of flying into the stratosphere. Which led to the development of the M-17 Stratosfera (or Mystic A), a first prototype of which crashed in 1978 during an unauthorized test flight.

Officially, the first flight of the M-17 took place on May 26, 1982. But, once again, the program was abandoned… before being reborn under the designation M-55 (or Mystic B), for reconnaissance flights. According to sources, two to five examples were built.

Since the end of the Cold War, these planes have been used primarily for scientific research purposes, although they still belong to the Russian Aerospace Forces, which consider them reconnaissance aircraft. One of them took part in a study of polar clouds in the Arctic zone in 2003. More recently, an M-55 “Geophysica” was ordered for the StratoClim project, carried out in 2016 by 26 European research institutes conducting climate and environmental studies. stratosphere.

That being said, these M-55 “Geophysica” could well find the military use that should have been theirs during the Cold War. Indeed, recent photographs, available in open sources, showed one of these aircraft equipped with a KNIRTI UKR-RT pod, usually used by Su-34 “Fullback” tactical bombers for electronic intelligence missions. .

Hence the hypothesis that these M-55s could soon return to service as reconnaissance and intelligence aircraft for missions over Ukrainian territory (or even beyond?).

In any case, in its daily report on the war in Ukraine, the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) does not exclude this possibility.

“Russia is likely considering returning the Soviet-era M-55 MYSTIC B high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft to service,” he wrote on November 19. “With an operational ceiling of over 70,000 feet, it has recently been used for scientific research. missions. However, it was observed with a military reconnaissance pod, developed for use on Russian fighter jets,” he added.

Latest defense intelligence update on the situation in Ukraine – November 19, 2023.

To learn more about defense intelligence’s use of language:

?? #StandWithUkraine ??

– Ministry of Defense ?? (@DefenceHQ) November 19, 2023

For the Ministry of Defense, the return of M-55s to Russian forces’ operations could be explained by the latter’s difficulty in “establishing an adequate intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capacity.” » (ISTAR).

Furthermore, he concludes, “there is a realistic possibility that the M-55 will return to service, on the front line, to reinforce Russia’s limited ISTAR capabilities over Ukraine.” Its ability to fly at high altitudes allows its sensors to operate at a considerable safe distance.

Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin – CC BY-SA 4.0


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