In November 2015, fifty-nine years after entering service, the Tu-95 finally saw combat as a bomber. Videos from the Russian Ministry of Defense in the fall of 2015 show them launching cruise missiles that went on to pound the positions of Syrian rebels. Moscow’s first-time deployment of the cruise missiles on air and naval platforms has been interpreted as a means of demonstrating its military capabilities to the world.
The Russian military today maintains a diverse fleet of bombers capable of carrying heavier payloads and flying at faster speeds than the Tu-95. However, the venerable Bear remains well adapted to the job of hauling heavy cruise missiles and keeping a watchful eye over the Pacific and Atlantic—especially when being discreet is not merely unnecessary for the mission, but contrary to its purpose.
Few aircraft are as distinctive as the massive Tupolev Tu-95 “Bear,” a four-engine Russian strategic bomber and maritime patrol plane with a gigantic unicorn-like refueling probe, giving it the appearance of a monstrosity lurching in from prehistoric times—or at least from shortly after World War II, as is in fact the case.
Don’t let its looks deceive you. Over sixty years later, the Tu-95 remains in service because few aircraft can cover such great distances for such long periods of time while carrying a hefty payload. Which is to say, the Tu-95 is Russia’s B-52—but one with a decidedly maritime bent and a habit of knocking at the door of coastal air-defense systems in Europe, Asia and North America.
Cold War Nuclear Bomber
The Bear was born from the Soviet Union’s desire to develop its own strategic bomber force to match the one fielded by the United States in World War II. Soviet planners requested in 1950 a four-engine bomber that could fly five thousand miles to hit targets across the United States while hauling over twelve tons of bombs.
The jet engines of the time, however, burned through fuel too quickly. Thus, the design bureau of Andrei Tupolev conceived of an aircraft using four powerful NK-12 turboprop engines with contrarotating propellers.
Each of the NK-12s has two propellers, the second one spinning in the direction opposite the first. This not only counteracts the torque created by the rotational airflow of the first propeller, but harnesses it for greater speed. Contrarotating propellers are therefore modestly more efficient—but because they are more expensive to produce and maintain, and also unbelievably noisy, they have not been widely adopted. In fact, the noise produced by Tu-95s has reportedly been remarked upon by submarine crews and jet pilots.
On the Tu-95, however, the unconventional engines paid off: the enormous Tu-95 is actually one of the fastest existing propeller planes, capable of going over five hundred miles per hour. The tips of its eighteen-foot diameter propellers actually spin at slightly over the speed of sound. The Bear is also one of very few propeller planes with swept-back wings, which only benefit aircraft capable of flying at higher speeds.
The Tu-95 also had tremendous fuel capacity and could fly over nine thousand miles just using internal fuel. After the initial production variant, later types added the distinctive in-flight refueling probe, even further extending their range. Typical patrols during the Cold War lasted ten hours, but some Tu-95 flights lasted nearly twice as long.
Tu-95s had crew of six to eight depending on the type, including two pilots and two navigators, while the remaining crew operated guns or sensor systems. The original version of the Bear had two twin-barreled twenty-three-millimeter cannons in the belly and tail, and a single fixed gun in the nose, all intended to ward off enemy fighters. This kind of armament became increasingly obsolete in the age of long-range air-to-air missiles, so the later models got rid of all but the tail gun. (To be fair, tail gunners on B-52s did score two or three kills over Vietnam).
The Bear’s original intended mission was fairly clear-cut: in the event the Cold War became really hot, dozens of individual Bears would fly across the Arctic Circle and drop nuclear bombs on targets over the United States. Even if many fell victim to surface-to-air missiles and defending fighters, the reasoning was that some would get through.
This mimicked the U.S. Air Force’s own war plans, immortalized in the film Dr. Strangelove. However, the Soviet Union did not maintain a twenty-four-hour force of airborne nuclear-armed bombers like the United States did.
Along these lines, Tu-95s were also used in nuclear weapon tests. A Tu-95V dropped the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated over Severny Island in 1961, the fifty-megaton Tsar Bomba . Deployed by parachute, Tsar detonated four kilometers above the ground, sending a mushroom cloud over forty miles into the sky. The shock wave tossed the Bear a thousand meters towards the ground, but the pilot managed to retain control and return to base. The crew had earlier been informed they had only a 50 percent chance of surviving the test.