The Soviet design first took to the air in 1953 before being revealed to the public on May Day 1954, when the Myasishchev M-4 Molot or 'Hammer' flew over Moscow's Red Square. The existence of such an aircraft in the Soviet arsenal took the United States by surprise, completely unaware that the Soviets had been developing a jet bomber. The jet bomber was given the NATO reporting code of 'Bison' following the alliance's practice of issuing names to Soviet aircraft corresponding with the type of aircraft being identified. In July 1955, American observers saw 28 Bison bombers flying in two groups during a Soviet airshow at Tushino near northwestern Moscow. The United States government came to believe that the bomber had been placed in mass production for the Soviet Air Force, and the Central Intelligence Agency estimated that 800 Bisons would be on ready alert by the beginning of 1960.
On 15 February 1954, aviation publication Aviation Week printed an article describing a new Soviet jet bomber capable of carrying a nuclear bomb to the United States mainland from their bases in deep in Soviet Russia. The aircraft they referred to was the Myasishchev M-4 Bison. Over the next year and a half these rumors were debated publicly in the press, and soon after in the United States Congress. Adding to the concerns was an infamous event in July 1955. At the Soviet Aviation Day demonstrations at the Tushino Airfield, ten Bison bombers were flown past the reviewing stand, then flew out of sight, quickly turned around, and flew past the stands again with eight more, presenting the illusion that there were 28 aircraft in the flyby. An elaborate deception formulated by Soviet military planners.
Western analysts calculated from the illusionary force of 28 aircraft, judged that by 1960 the Soviets would have 800. The classified estimates however, led American politicians to warn of a "bomber gap". The "bomber gap" was a term to define a belief that the Soviet Union had gained a strategic advantage in deploying jet-powered strategic bombers that were capable of attacking the United States. The concept was widely accepted for several years, and was used as a political talking point in order to justify a great increase in American defense spending. At the time, the USAF had just introduced its own strategic jet bomber, the B-52 Stratofortress, and the shorter ranged B-47 Stratojet which was still suffering from a variety of technical problems that limited its combat availability. USAF staff started pressing for accelerated production of the larger B-52 Stratofortress, but it also grudgingly accepted calls for expanded air defense.The Air Force was generally critical of spending effort on defense, having studied the results of the World War II bombing campaigns and concluding that Stanley Baldwin's pre-war thinking on the fruitlessness of air defense was correct: the bomber almost always did get through. Like the British, they concluded that money would better be spent on making the offensive arm larger, deterring an attack. The result was a production series consisting of thousands of aircraft. Over 2,000 B-47s and almost 750 B-52s were built to match the imagined fleet of Soviet aircraft.
U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was skeptical of the perceived bomber gap idea from its inception. With no evidence to prove or disprove the logic, he agreed to the development of the Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady high altitude reconnaissance aircraft to provide an answer to the lingering question . The first U-2 flights started in 1956. On one early mission known as Mission 2020 flown by Martin Knutson on 4 July 1956, a U-2 flew over Engels airfield near Saratov and photographed 20 M-4 Bison bombers on the ramp. Multiplying by the number of Soviet bomber bases known to exist, the intelligence suggested the Soviets were already well on their way to deploying hundreds of aircraft. Ironically, the U-2 had actually photographed the entire Bison fleet; there wasn't a single bomber at any of the other bases. Similar missions over the next year finally demonstrated this beyond a doubt, and at least in official circles that the gap had been disproven. It was later learned that the Soviet Bison was unable to meet its original range goals and was limited to a range of roughly about 8,000 km. Unlike the United States, at that time the Soviets lacked overseas bases in the Western Hemisphere and therefore the M-4 would not be able to attack the US mainland and return to land at a friendly airbase.
In the end it was not the Soviet Air Force (VVS) that wanted the Bison, but rather Naval Aviation (AV-MF). Though it could still not bomb Washington, D.C., the Bison had a sufficient range to fulfill the need for a long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft. In 1959, the 3M variant broke numerous world records; however, it was thought by the West (and would continue to be thought so until 1961) that the 3M variant was the original M-4, meaning that the capability of the M-4 was vastly overestimated by Western intelligence agencies.Interest in the Myasishchev Bison waned, and a total of only 93 were produced before production of the bomber ceased in 1963. The vast majority of these were modified for used as tankers or maritime reconnaissance aircraft; only the original 10 shown at the air show and nine newer 3MD13 models served on nuclear alert with the Soviet bomber force.
Neither the M-4 nor the 3M ever saw combat service, and none were ever modified for low altitude penetration attack, as the American B-52 Stratofortresses were. No Bisons were ever exported to the Soviet Union's allies. The last aircraft, an M-4-2 fuel tanker, was withdrawn from service in 1994.
So the legacy of the Bison was largely preserved in the aftermath of the bomber gap controversy which through American miscalculations resulted in a massive buildup of the United States Air Force's strategic bomber fleet, which peaked at over 2,500 strategic bombers to counter the perceived Soviet threat. Realizing that the mere belief in the gap was an extremely effective funding source, a series of similarly nonexistent Soviet military advances were constructed in the following years of the Cold War in a tactic now known as "policy by press release." Other deceptions included claims of a nuclear-powered bomber, supersonic VTOL flying saucers, and ultimately only a few years after the "bomber gap" came a "missile gap."