Ever since Austria sent aloft bomb-filled balloons against Venice targets in 1849, the prospect of unmanned aircraft in war has been on the minds of warplanners. The field advanced some into the early-to-mid-1900s when drones were developed to assist with gunnery and missile training. Today, they have become lethal munitions-delivery systems capable of precision strikes with some able to loiter for days on end.
During the Cold War-era (1947-1991), the Soviet Union and the United States consistently volleyed for global military supremacy. This also included the field of unmanned aircraft and both sides invested heavily in development of advanced, unmanned high-speed reconnaissance systems. The Tupolev design bureau of the Soviet Union generated an off-shoot of the abandoned Tu-121 supersonic, nuclear-capable cruise missile as the "Tu-123". The design was based around the Tumansky R-15 series afterburning turbojet engine, the same used to power (in a paired arrangement) the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 "Foxbat" high-speed interceptor (detailed elsewhere on this site). The engine proved an excellent propulsion system to base an entire, missile-like aerodynamic structure around so a the base design of the Tu-123 incorporated a nose cone, forward canards and aft-wing elements fitted to the largely-cylindrical shape. An air scoop was added along the ventral line of the shape to aspirate the sole engine installation which exhausted through a large port at the rear of the aircraft.
The result was the unmanned disposable Tu-123 "Yastreb" (or "Falcon") whose developmental designation was "DBR-1". A first-flight was recorded in 1960 and initial testing wrapped before the end of 1961. Formal testing spanned into 1963 and formal service introduction followed in May of 1964. Factory No. 64 of Voronezh was charged with serial production of the drone which amounted to fifty-two total aircraft.
Internally, the reconnaissance-minded Tu-123 carried SIGnals INTelligence (SIGINT) and camera equipment to spy on the allied forces of Europe. The drone was able to power itself through the R-15 engine fit but relied on JATO (Jet-Assisted Take-Off) assistance for take-off. There was no recovery of the air unit itself for the payload was jettisoned (and landed by way of deployable parachute) and the entire airframe lost in the mission.
As completed, the Tu-123 exhibited a length of 27.8 meters, a wingspan of 8.4 meters and a height of 4.7 meters. Empty weight was 11,450 kilograms against a MTOW of 35,610 kg and the Tumansky R-15 engine produced 22,045lb of thrust - propelling the aircraft to speeds of 1,675 miles per hour out to ranges of 2,000 miles. It held a service ceiling of nearly 75,000 feet.
In the end, the Tu-123 - as a disposable aircraft product - proved economically unfeasible to sustain in long-term service so this inevitably limited production (spanning 1964 until 1972) and service use lasted just until 1979. An attempt at a reusable version, the Tu-139 "Yastreb 2", was seen but this design was not adopted. Instead the role of the high-flying, high-speed Tu-123 was eventually overtaken by a reconnaissance-minded version of the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25. Thus ended the flying days of the Tu-123 drone.
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