Myasishchev M-17/M-55 Mystic
The Myasishchev M-17, known as the Mystic or RAM-M, was originally designed in the mid-1950's as a high altitude interceptor, but rather than intercept aircraft, the M-17 was intended to intercept the high altitude reconnaissance balloons the USA were then launching over Russia and shoot them down with a dorsal gun turret.
However, the when the US reconnaissance balloon programme ended, the development of the M-17 continued very slowly, but now as a high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. The design finally evolved into a single seat aircraft with a long, non-swept, high aspect ratio wing and a distinct twin-boom tail.
A single RKBM Rybinsk RD-36-51V turbojet developing 15,430 lbs of thrust powered the first two prototypes, known as Mystic-A's which first flew in 1978. The Mystic-A was then developed into the Mystic-B or M-17. The M-17 can carry a variety of cameras and other sensors housed in a large compartment in the lower fuselage. Endurance is believed to be around 6 hours with a service ceiling of 65,000ft and a maximum speed of around 450mph.
A further development of the M-17 is the M-55, which is powered by two Aviadvigatel PS-30V12 turbojets, and was given the military designation of M-17RM following the maiden flight of the prototype on 16 Aug 88. Only four M-55/M-17RM were built and in 1990 one aircraft (RA 55204) was converted into a high-altitude ecological monitoring aircraft, however, the other three aircraft have been lost in accidents.
The surviving prototype M-17RM has been based at the Russian Air Force test centre at Akhtubinsk for some time whilst engaged in unspecified equipment trials. The Russian Air Force have had an uncompleted requirement for a battlefield surveillance and strike/reconnaissance aircraft equipped with a SLAR, similar to the abandoned US Precision Location Strike System (PLSS), and it is believed the M-17RM has been engaged in trials of equipment for this role.
Myasishchev also have an upgraded version of the M-55 on the drawing boards. The aircraft is known as the M-55-1 and will probably be roughly the same size and layout as the M-55, but will have a higher take-off weight allowing the carriage of much more equipment. Myasishchev are also believed to be continuing work on a new high altitude reconaissance platform known as the M-60.
It is unlikely that either of these surviving aircraft have ever engaged in operational military reconnaissance activity and no photograph has ever appeared of the aircraft in a military configuration. However, the Russian Ministry of Defence has recently placed an order for a single M-17RM, allowing Myasishchev to complete one of the two M-17RM airframes which have been lying unfinished in their Smolensk factory since 1994. In addition, Russia has also proposed to India a military/technical co-operation programme to develop the Myasishchev M-55RTR, a high altitude ELINT version of the Mystic - the cost of around $150 million would be paid entirely by the Indians. Other versions of the Mystic have been proposed and it is even rumoured that the Israelies might be in the market for a specialised version of this aircraft. However, as the M-17RM lacks the capability to operate above 70,000ft, is currently equipped with limited modern avionics and has no discernable 'stealth' characteristics, it would be vulnerable to most modern fighter aircraft or AA missiles and will probably be restricted to a 'stand-off' rather than an 'overflight' role. Some commentators have compared these fairly primitive aircraft to the U-2R, but in reality they are years behind in performance, avionics and, most importantly, reconnaissance capability.