The Russian Tu-95/-142 Bear has been showing up in a lot of places it maybe shouldn’t be over the past month, as the Russian Air Force and Navy continues to probe the air defenses of several nations.The sixty-year-old symbol of the Cold War has been able to remain a viable weapon system despite its age, much the way the B-52 has managed. Russian Bears have pushed close to the United States, Canada and Japan forcing each nation to scramble fighter jets to meet the Bears.
There has been a significant increase in probing missions since 2014, and while these events are interesting, it is nothing that the U.S or it allies do every day around the world. B-1 bombers flew over South Korea a few weeks ago to further get North Korea’s attention, and almost everyday some sort of spy plane can be seen sniffing and pushing at the Russian enclave in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. These missions are mostly routine, but things can go wrong. A U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II was forced to land in China not too many years ago after colliding with a Chinese fighter, and a Russian plane buzzed a Swedish airliner when it came within 300 feet with its transponder off.
Since April 12, Russian Bears have been intercepted on six different days by Japanese F-15J Eagles, American F-22 Raptors and Canadian CF-18 Hornets. Each encounter brings with it the uncertainty of intentions and the risk of an accidental collision which would create an international incident. The intercepts have been described as “safe and professional,” but while Japan experiences these encounters more frequently, it has been years since America or Canada had to scramble alert fighters into the air to challenge Russian aircraft as they approached their borders.
These intercepts mark the first time since July 4, 2015 that American fighters have intercepted Russian military aircraft off America’s coast. On that day, two Bear bombers flew along the California coast and got to within 39 miles north of San Francisco. One of the Russian pilots reportedly greeted the American fighter pilots with “Good morning, American pilots. We are here to greet you on your Fourth of July Independence Day.” Two other Bears also skirted the Aleutian Islands.
It is very likely that these missions close to the United States are a continuation of Russian aircrew training to launch cruise missiles against military targets. In Alaska, the potential targets could be Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson , Fort Greely (which is a launch site for anti-ballistic missiles), the COBRA DANE radar on the Aleutians, or even the Alaskan pipeline. Russian bomber crews have been believed to have practiced launching cruise missiles multiple times, flying into “launch baskets” from which their missiles can reach their intended targets. By revealing rhat a nuclear strike was practiced against Sweden in 2013 by Russian Tu-22M3 Backfire-C bombers, NATO has confirmed the Russians are obviously looking at a lot of potential targets.
The United States, along with about twenty other nations, have established air defense identification zones (ADIZ) that stretch off their coasts. The ADIZ is a product of the Cold War and the first American ADIZ was established by President Truman in 1950 during the Korean War to reduce the possibility of a surprise attack by the Soviet Union. An ADIZ is a known boundary that extends beyond national territory, and is almost always in international airspace. Within the ADIZ, unidentified aircraft are expected to be challenged until their intent can be verified. The U.S. has five ADIZs: East and West Coast, Alaska, Hawaii and Guam.
There are no international agreements regarding the establishment of an ADIZ, and just because one nation has declared the boundaries of an ADIZ does not mean they have extended their legal borders. Over the East China Sea there are ADIZs established by Japan, South Korea and China which overlap creating a very complicated situation.
Each of the recent Bear flights have involved penetrating someone’s ADIZ, and the first of the recent activity occurred April 12 along the coast of Japan. Three Russian Tu-95MS Bears flew from their base at Ukrainka in the Far East, and flew nearly the length of Japan’s east coast. At the same time a single Il-20 Coot - which is an electronic intelligence (ELINT) gathering platform - flew down Japan’s west coast. Japan scrambled 14 fighters at different times during the Russian Bears’ flight. In 2016 Japan scrambled jets in record numbers to investigate unidentified aircraft entering its ADIZ. On over 1,000 occasions Japanese fighters raced into the air to protect the country’s ADIZ. Of those occurrences, 301 were to ward off Russian aircraft. Of the 882 remaining scrambles, 851 were to push back Chinese aircraft probing Japan’s air defenses. Earlier this year, two Russian Tu-95s flew around Japan.
On April 17 Russia would kick off four straight days of flying at Alaska when two Tu-95MS bombers were intercepted by two American F-22s as the Russian bombers got to within 100 miles of Kodiak Island and penetrated the Alaskan ADIZ. The American pilots escorted the bombers for 12 minutes before returning to base. A KC-135 tanker and E-3 Sentry AWACS were also scrambled to meet the Russian bombers, the first to in two years to have targeted Alaska.
The next day two more Bear bombers were again off Kodiak Island, this time closing to within 36 miles before turning back. No American fighters were scrambled to intercept this pair but another E-3 AWACS was sent aloft to monitor the bombers.
On April 19, two Russian aircraft passed south of the Aleutian Islands and this time, there was no intercept, as they were were Il-38 May maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft.
On the fourth day, two more Tu-95MS bombers flew north of Alaska and Canada. American F-22s and Canadian CF-18 Hornets intercepted and escorted the bombers as they flew along the coast of both countries. For the Canadians, it was the first time in more than two years a Russian aircraft was intercepted off its northern coast.
But the most interesting encounter was the most recent one, when another pair of Tu-95MS bombers were intercepted by F-22s about 50 miles southwest of Chariot, Alaska on May 3. Only this time, the Bears were not alone. With them were two of Russia’s newest and most capable fighter, the Su-35S Flanker-E. Farther back a Russian A-50 Mainstay AWACs aircraft monitored the mission, but at no time did the Mainstay stray into U.S. territory nor was it intercepted. This was the first escort mission for the Su-35S along the Alaskan coast, though it is probably not the first time the F-22 and Su-35S have encountered each other, as both aircraft were flying missions over Syria at the same time.
The Russian Bear has been probing not only American, but NATO and Japanese air defenses as well for decades. Its shape is unmistakable with huge swept wings, a protruding refueling probe over the nose, and its four large and loud NK-12 engines attached to two four-blade contra-rotating propellers. The propeller-powered Bear is limited to a maximum speed of just over 500 mph, much like the American jet-engined B-52, but typically flies around 450 mph during the duration of its seemingly endless missions that can stretch toward fourteen hours or longer depending on the availability of in-flight refueling.
The aircraft have ranged over the oceans, hunting submarines and aircraft carrier battle groups, and practiced penetrating American airspace to deliver nuclear bombs during the Cold War before settling in as a cruise missile launching platform.
The Tu-95 first flew in November 1952, and production of the aircraft stretched from 1955 to 1992, with over 500 of the airframes were built to a slew of different designations. Of those built, less than 90 remain airworthy, with most of the airframes belonging to the Tu-95 Bear-H missile-carrying variant.
The Bear has been familiar to the opposing air forces since 1956, when the airframe became operational as a nuclear bomber designed to take off from the Soviet Union, fly over the Arctic and deliver a series of nuclear bombs to the U.S. To cement this idea of capable nuclear delivery platform a Tu-95 dropped the Tsar Bomba on the island of Novaya Zemlya in 1961. The Tsar Bomba is the largest man-made explosion in history with the thermonuclear weapon having a yield of 50 megatons. The blast from the 60,000-pound weapon could be seen from as far away as 600 miles.
Today Russia operates three main types of the Bear family: the Tupolev Tu-95 Bear-H strategic bomber, the Tupolev Tu-142 Bear-F maritime patrol aircraft and the Beriev Tu-142MR strategic communications aircraft. Both the Bear-H and the Bear-F have multiple variants. The Tu-95MS Bear-H is a strategic intercontinental-range cruise missile carrier and these were built between 1982 and 1992. There are two current variants of the Tu-95MS flying today. Older aircraft have the Osina missile system that only allows the employment of the Kh-55 (NATO calls it the AS-15 Kent) armed with a 200 kiloton nuclear warhead. Six missiles were carried on an internal rotary launcher, but newer aircraft use the Sprut system to deliver the Kh-55 and can carry sixteen missiles, adding ten under the wings.
From 2003 the Bear-H was modified to carry six Kh-555 cruise missiles that are conventionally armed versions of the nuclear Kh-55.
The Sprut version of the Tu-95MS has also been modified to carry the conventional Kh-101 long-range stealth cruise missile and the Kh-102 nuclear version. These weapons are longer than the Kh-55 and will not fit in the rotary launcher and must be carried under the Bear’s wings with a maximum carry of eight. With a full load of Kh-101/-102 the range of the Bear is quite reduced to around 4,300 miles.
The Tu-95 MSM looks to be a final upgrade program that was launched in late 2009 to update the bomber’s capabilities. Some of the upgraded equipment will include a new radar, modernization of the navigation system, a “glass” cockpit, enhanced defensive measures and improved engines, which will provide better fuel efficiency to help counter the loss of range accompanied with the external carriage of the Kh-101/-102. At least one Tu-95MSM made its combat debut by launching missiles at Syria in November 2015.
The least recognized of the Bear family is the Beriev Tu-142MR Bear-J strategic radio-relay aircraft. Designed to ensure that Moscow can maintain contact with its ballistic missile submarines, the aircraft is externally very similar to the Tu-142MK Bear F with a few notable differences including a forward-facing pod atop the tail. The mission of the Bear-J is similar to the U.S. Navy’s E-6B Mercury TACAMO (TAke Charge And Move Out), which provides the ability to communicate with submerged submarines, specifically the ballistic missile submarine fleet. The Bear-J first flew in 1978 and entered service with 1982.
Operated by a crew of nine (including a rear gunner), they are protected against electromagnetic radiation by a special window coating, as they may have to conduct their mission during a nuclear exchange. Rather than carrying weapons in the bomb bay, the Bear-J carries the trailing wire antenna that will be deployed via an external ventral pod. The 25,187-foot wire antenna takes 37 minutes to be fully extend, and 48 minutes to retract. While deployed, the Bear-J will fly an extended series of tight turns to ensure the wire is as close to vertical as possible ensuring the best situation to conduct VLF communications with submerged SSBNs. Approximately 10 Bear-J airframes remain and are based primarily at two airfields. One is at Kipelovo (formerly Fedotovo), and is about 400 kilometers north of Moscow, and these aircraft serve the ballistic missile subs of the Northern Fleet on the Kola Peninsula. The other base is in the far east at Mongokhto and serves the Russian Pacific Fleet from the base on the Strait of Tartary.
The last type of Bear currently operating is the Bear-F, designated either the Tu-142MK Bear-F Mod 3 or the Tu-142MZ Bear-F Mod 4, and is a long-range anti-submarine warfare aircraft. With a crew of 10 the Bear-F has a maximum endurance of over 16 hours, and can patrol 2,485 miles from base for over four hours locating and prosecuting ASW contacts. Over 100 Tu-142s were built between 1968 and 1994 but only 12 remain in service with two squadrons of six aircraft operating from the same bases as the Bear-J. Six Tu-142MKs at Kipeolov and six Tu-142MZs at Mongokhto.
The differences between the MK and MZ designation is the system used to process information received from deployed sonobuoys, with the MZ being a newer design able to accommodate the processing power need to interpret the information obtained from the dropped buoys. The Bear-F has two internal weapons bay for carrying torpedoes, depth charges, mines and sonobuoys. Typically, the Bear-F would be armed with three torpedoes and over 120 sonobuoys to locate, track and attack submarines.
With the development of stand-off cruise missiles, the Bear received a life extension and subsequently turned into a capable delivery platform, able to threaten almost anywhere in the world. It is this version of the Bear – the Tu-95MS – that currently causes the most headaches for alert aircraft from Alaska to Canada and Japan to England. Armed with as many as eight KH-101/-102 stealth cruise missiles, with an estimated range of 3,100 miles, the Bear no longer has to be over the target to hit it. Those stealth cruise missiles conveniently come with either a nuclear of conventional payload.
In recent years there have been a few incidents that potentially warn about the condition of the aging Bear fleet. In 2015 two accidents prompted a temporary grounding of the Tu-95/Tu-142 airframes. One aircraft crashed near Khabarvosk, which is close to the Chinese border. Two pilots were killed but seven survived by parachuting from the stricken aircraft. Another exploded on takeoff from its base at Ukrainka resulting in the loss of one crew member.
The Tu-95/142 Bear airframe is not the most modern of designs by any stretch of the imagination. It will not sneak up on anyone these days, but it no longer has to. First flown during the same period when the American military was putting its first jet powered bombers such as the B-45 Tornado and the B-47 Stratojet into the air, the Bear’s survivability was openly questioned. The Bear’s propeller-driven design was predicted to have a short life-span in the new era of jet fighters and the recently developed surface-to-air missile. Yet, here the Bear is sixty plus years after the design was introduced still threatening the country it was designed to target. No longer with nuclear bombs but with cruise missiles potentially armed with nuclear warheads. The Bear has survived and adapted. One of the most durable aircraft ever built, each time a Bear takes off, it carries with it the enduring legacy of Russian military aviation.
Gary Wetzel is an experienced military and aviation writer who has authored two books examining the combat operations of the A-10 Warthog in Afghanistan. He also served over six years in the U.S Navy as sonar technician aboard USS Philadelphia and USS Dallas.