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.
By the 1960s, the Soviet Union wisely concluded that a nuclear strategic bomber force attempting to drop nuclear gravity bombs over the United States was a wasteful proposition, given the increasing effectiveness of air defenses and the comparatively lower cost of unstoppable ballistic missiles. New variants of the Tu-95 were therefore developed to pursue different missions.
One means of getting around the bomber’s vulnerability to interception was to use them as a platform for long-range cruise missiles. The Tu-95K variant could carry the enormous Kh-20 nuclear cruise missile, known by NATO as the AS-3 Kangaroo. The missile had a range of three hundred to six hundred kilometers, and looked like a wingless airplane because it more or less was one—it was modeled off the fuselage of a MiG-19.
Another mission assigned the Bear was to shadow U.S. carrier battle groups. Even with state-of-the-art sensors, finding and tracking ships across the vastness of the ocean was a challenging endeavor. However, if a U.S. carrier group could be located, it could be pounced upon by swarms of land-based bombers. The Bear, with its ability to fly over the ocean for hours on end and cover vast territories, was ideal for ferreting out the position of U.S. fleets and tracking their movements.
The Tu-95RT maritime reconnaissance variant was produced to specially perform this duty: it had surface-search radar in a belly pod and even added a glass observation blister just behind the tail gun position.
Not only was tracking fleet movements useful in the event of a war, but it also served as a psychological tactic to emphasize the Navy’s vulnerability to air attack. U.S. carrier fighters were often scrambled to chase off the intrusive Bears. Photographs of the many Bear-on-fighter encounters are icons of the Cold War era.
There was a multitude of experimental Bears, including the Tu-95LAL, which was powered by a nuclear reactor, and the Tu-95K, designed to carry MiG-19 fighters for airborne deployment.