The UK Ministry of Defence intelligence update on Sunday said it was likely that Russia was considering deploying the Myasischev M-55 Geophysica (NATO designation Mystic-B) aircraft back into service to provide it with the air reconnaissance capability it currently lacks.

The UK said that Russia’s failure to establish an adequate airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) capability has been a “critical flaw in Russian procurement strategy.” This inhibits Moscow’s forces’ ability to gather timely and accurate intelligence and targeting data – which Ukraine reportedly receives from its Western allies.

The assessment that the aircraft was to be used in this way was made after recent open-source images of the aircraft showed a “refurbished” M-55 at the military area of the Zhukovsky / Ramenskoye airfield near Moscow. Suspended under its wing was an unusual container, which has tentatively been identified as UKR-RT radio reconnaissance equipment, which was previously seen carried by Su-34 fighter bombers during the “Zapad-2021” military exercise.

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The M-55 was designed in the 1970s as the Soviet (inferior) answer to the US U2-R high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. It is a development of earlier aircraft intended to combat enemy high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. Earlier models were equipped with air-to-air missiles (AAM) and 23mm cannon in a dorsal turret.

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The M-55 Geophysica made its first flight in 1988. It is a high-altitude, subsonic, single seat-aircraft, fitted with twin PS-30 turbojet engines, mounted side-by-side behind a raised cockpit. It has an operating ceiling of over 22,000 meters (70,000 feet), which if deployed to Ukraine, would allow intelligence to be gathered in a stand-off mode beyond Kyiv’s current anti-aircraft capability.

It has a flight endurance of over 6 hours and is capable of carrying a 1,500-kilogram (3,300 lbs) payload within removeable pods mounted below the aircraft. Reconnaissance equipment operates automatically during flight with real-time data being transmitted through its communication channel to the ground control station.

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Following the collapse of the Soviet Union the Russian military apparently decided that they didn’t need the capability and only limited numbers of the aircraft were built – some sources say as few five. While it remains in service with the Russian armed forces it officially only performs earth science research operations.

The manufacturer, the Myasischev design bureau, was said to be developing two-seat versions and the M-55RTR high-altitude electronic intelligence version, primarily for export and an updated M-60 model.

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