At first glance, the Russian Tu-95 Bear strategic bomber looks like a 59-year-old flying anachronism, a Cold War leftover that has outlived its usefulness in a century when stealth is king.
The Bear is showing signs of its age. In recent months, two Tu-95 crashes led to the grounding of the entire fleet of more than 50 aircraft to resolve mechanical issues. Besides, there is nothing stealthy about the Bear.
Even when the bomber is in top-notch shape, the turboprop-powered Tu-95 is loud … really loud. In fact, it’s so noisy that listening devices on submerged U.S. submarines can hear a Bear flying overhead.
Furthermore, it has the radar signature of a flying big-box store. The plane is huge.
Photos of lumbering Bear-H bombers intercepted by sleek U.S. or NATO warplanes as they flew toward protected airspace are some of the most recognizable images of the East-West nuclear stand-off during the 1970s and ’80s.
But Cold War aviation genius Andrei Tupolev was no fool. He designed an adaptable plane that can carry one Hell of a load-out when it comes to bombs and missiles, fly thousands of miles from bases in Russia, loiter on the edges of enemy airspace, and deliver megatons of nuclear destruction.
As recently as July 4, multiple Bear bombers flew into U.S. air defense identification zones off California and Alaska. In fact, some of the Bears flew within 40 miles off the California coastline.
Technically, the bombers were still within international airspace. But call it Cold War 2.0 — the Kremlin is sending the same message the bomber has always sent.
“The current missions being flown by the Tu-95 are absolutely designed and principally intended to appeal to Russian pride and national identity,” said Scott Palmer, professor of history at Western Illinois University and author of Dictatorship of the Air: Aviation Culture and the Fate of Modern Russia.
In 1956, the Soviet Military Air Forces wanted a replacement for the Tu-4 Bull, the USSR’s first nuclear-capable bomber. The Bull was a copy of the B-29 – Tupolev used crashed and interned examples of the B-29 as the basis of his reverse-engineered design.
But even though it was a clone of the same kind of aircraft that dropped the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear weapons, the Bull did not have the range necessary to strike targets within the United States if it was flown from Russia.
The new Soviet bomber would need to have a range of at least 5,000 miles and carry a nine-ton bomb load.
Tupolev’s new design was big even by contemporary standards. The Bear’s narrow fuselage is more than 150 feet long with a 164-foot wingspan. What’s more, the wings are swept back at a 35-degree angle to reduce drag.
In addition, the Bear possesses a 9,000-mile range without refueling. Because it was originally designed to carry 1950s nuclear gravity bombs, it has a large bomb bay and plenty of room on its wings to accommodate newly added hard points.
Today, that means the modified Tu-95MS can carry 16 AS-15 Kent cruise missiles — six internally in an MKU 5-6 rotary launcher, and 10 on external wing pylons. Each missile is capable carrying a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead, a yield roughly equal to 10 times the atomic bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.
Last year, Russia upgraded eight Tu-95s to cruise missile-carrying MS status with 10 more modified Bears scheduled for deployment by 2016.
During the 1950s, the real technical innovation was the Bear’s 14,000 horsepower turboprop engines. The four Kuznetsov NK-12M engines each with two contra-rotating propellers are the most powerful turboprop engines in the world.
In fact, the engines are so powerful the tips of the 20-foot long propeller blades break the sound barrier when the pilot throttles up — one of the reasons the aircraft is so deafeningly loud.
Noisy as it is, the Bear’s seven-man crew can fly a number of Tu-95 variants configured not only for strategic bombing but also for maritime patrol and photo intelligence. There was even a version used as a passenger aircraft, and a specially modified Bear dropped the Tsar Bomba — the world’s most powerful nuclear bomb ever exploded — during its 1961 Soviet test detonation.
Despite its drawbacks, what explains the Bear’s longevity? Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists, told War Is Boring the Russian Federation doesn’t have much choice.
The Russian defense industry fell into disarray after the collapse of the Soviet Union and has not recovered enough to sustain a new bomber program, Kristensen said. The Russians are developing a next-generation jet bomber that is expected to start test flights in the early 2020s, but it remains to be seen what they can build and how soon it can be deployed.
“Generally, airplanes can fly for a very long time, as long as spare parts are available,” he said. “Propeller engines are generally speaking less complex to operate than jet engines and many modern aircraft types also use propellers.”
“Moreover, although a Bear would not last long against a modern air defense system, it is equipped with long-range cruise missiles that provide considerable stand-off capability. So for now, the Bear serves Russia’s needs for standoff air-delivered weapons, signaling and national prestige.”
It may be flawed, but the Bear bomber will be going strong as both a weapons platform and a symbol of Russian might for years to come. Even with plans to build a jet-powered bomber during the next decade, upgrades will allow the Cold War giant to keep flying through the 2040s.
It’s old, it’s obvious and it has mechanical problems — facts hard to ignore while the Tu-95 plays a key role in a highly orchestrated and much exaggerated effort by the Kremlin to impress its foreign rivals.
But it’s equally hard to ignore a bomber that can fly within miles of your shoreline armed to the teeth with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
“The Tu-95 is a flying anachronism,” Palmer said, “though one that remains an essential component of the Russian strategic air arm.”
This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here.