Russian nuclear-capable strategic bombers have flown a rare mission around the Korean peninsula at the same time as the US and South Korea conduct joint military exercises that have infuriated Pyongyang.
Russia, which has said it is strongly against any unilateral US military action on the peninsula, said Tupolev-95MS bombers, code named “Bears” by NATO, had flown over the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Japan, the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea, prompting Japan and Seoul to scramble jets to escort them.
The flight, which also included planes with advanced intelligence gathering capabilities, was over international waters and was announced by the Russian Defense Ministry on the same day as Moscow complained about the US-South Korean war games.
“The US and South Korea holding yet more large-scale military and naval exercises does not help reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula,” Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the foreign ministry, told a news briefing in Moscow.
“We urge all sides to exercise maximum caution. Given the arms build-up in the region, any rash move or even an unintended incident could spark a military conflict.”
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying did not comment specifically on the Russian mission when asked, reiterating China hoped all sides could quickly return to talks and appropriately and peacefully resolve the situation.
The United States and South Korea began the long-planned joint military exercises on Monday, heightening tensions with Pyongyang which called the drills a “reckless” step toward nuclear conflict.
Some military experts regard the hulking Russian turboprop bombers which made the flight near the Korean peninsula as a relic of the Cold War. But Russia has upgraded the aircraft since the Soviet fall and, since 2007, has used the planes to back its diplomacy with shows of force and to probe other countries’ airspaces.
Moscow said the bombers had been accompanied by Sukhoi-35S fighter jets and A-50 early warning and control aircraft.
The A-50s, the Russian equivalent of the Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft, are designed to track aerial and ground targets at a long range, among other capabilities.
Moscow did not say how many aircraft had taken part or when the mission had taken place.
“Our long-range aviation pilots, according to an established plan, regularly carry out flights over neutral waters over the Atlantic, the Arctic, the Black Sea and the Pacific Ocean from their bases and from tactical airfields,” the defense ministry said in the same statement.
It said the TU-95MS bombers were refueled in mid-air during the mission, and that during parts of the route they had been escorted by South Korean and Japanese military jets.
Russia, which shares a border with North Korea, has repeatedly voiced concerns about rising tensions on the Korean peninsula caused by Pyongyang’s nuclear missile program, and has also complained about possible plans by Japan to deploy a US anti-missile system on its soil.
Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Zakharova said on Thursday that if Tokyo did go ahead and opt to deploy such a system it would be disproportional to the North Korean missile threat and could upset wider strategic stability in the region.
Japan has at least twice before this year been forced to scramble its jets to intercept Russian aircraft.
The daily Izvestia newspaper reported in October last year that Russia was close to finishing setting up a new division of heavy bombers to patrol “the Japan-Guam-Hawaiian Islands triangle.”
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.
Models that entered production included the Tu-95MR photo-reconnaissance aircraft, and the improved Tu-95K and KM with better sensors and the capability of launching Kh-22 missiles
The Soviet Union eventually developed a specialized antisubmarine reconnaissance plane from the Bear, the Tu-142. This arose out of fear of the new Polaris Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM), which performed the first underwater ballistic-missile launch in 1960. The Tu-142 is distinguished by its Berkut (Golden Eagle) surface-search and targeting radar. A boom in the tail houses a Magnetic Anomaly Detector useful for finding submarines. The Tu-142 is stretched a bit longer to accommodate all of the sensors packed inside it.
These systems had to be upgraded several times during the Cold War to keep up with U.S. submarine technology. The current variant, the Tu-142MZ, can use superior RGB-16 and RGB-26 sonar-buoys and has more powerful engines. On repeated occasions, Tu-142s succeeded in detecting U.S. submarines and following them for hours at a time. Two special Tu-142MRs designed to communicate with Russian submarines were also produced.
The Russian Naval Air Arm still operates fifteen Tu-142s today. One was recently spotted in Syria—either using its systems to spy on Syrian rebel positions or monitor U.S. fleet movements.
The Indian Navy has operated eight Tu-142MK-Es since 1988—though they are due to be replaced by twelve P-8I Poseidon aircraft in the near future.
The Bear was also developed into Russia’s first AWACs aircraft—the Tu-126—and the Tu-114 airliner which carried Khrushchev on a nonstop eleven-hour flight from Moscow to New York in 1959. However, neither type still flies today.
Besides the Tu-142, the only Tu-95s in service today are over fifty Tu-95MS aircraft, actually developed from the Tu-142 airframe to serve as a cruise-missile carrier capable of firing Kh-55 missiles, also known as the AS-15 by NATO. They have recently been upgraded to carry sixteen cruise missiles each, and outfitted with new navigation/targeting systems. The Kh-55 comes in many variants, both conventional and nuclear, with ranges as long as three thousand kilometers and as short as three hundred.
The Tu-95MSM variant can also fire the Kh-101 and nuclear Kh-102 stealth cruise missiles which skim at low altitude and boast a reduced radar-cross section. These missiles can reach up to 5,500 kilometers away.
Despite such deadly payloads, the Bear may be suffering from its age. In the summer of 2015 they were briefly grounded after suffering their second accident in two years.
The Tupolev Today
The Bear is still flying across the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean in the twenty-first century. One of its principal missions can be described as trolling other countries.
Tu-95s have been detected buzzing by the coast of England, fifty miles west of California, into the Alaskan air defense identification zone, and inside Japanese airspace. The closer flights usually provoke a fighter interception in response. Most of the time they don’t actually violate foreign airspace.
Such patrols, routine during the Cold War, were resumed by Putin in 2007. Although these are theoretically surveillance missions, their main intention is to remind other countries that Russia remains capable of sending nuclear-armed bombers close to their airspace if it chooses to.
Regular flights by U.S. RC-135 spy planes are also known to elicit interceptions by Chinese and Russian fighters. However, the RC-135 cannot carry any weapons.
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.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
This first appeared in the summer of 2016 and is being reposted due to reader interest.
Tupolev Tu-95MS (Nato code name: Bear-H) is a four-engine, long-range, turboprop, strategic bomber / missile carrier developed by Russian aerospace and defence company JSC Tupolev Design Bureau.
The carrier is currently in service with the Russian Air Force.
Based on the airframe of Tu-142 (Bear F) maritime patrol aircraft, the Tu-95MS aircraft is a modernised version of the Tu-95 Bear strategic bomber. It is equipped with stand-off cruise missiles and can be deployed in combat missions to defeat cruise missiles and strategic enemy targets.
The Russian Defence Ministry intends to procure 20 modernised bombers by the end of 2016. The aircraft are expected to remain in service with them until 2040.
Tu-95MS strategic bomber combat aircraft orders and deliveries
A Tu-95MS prototype made first flight in September 1979. Serial production of the bomber was carried out at Kuibyshev Aircraft Works (now OJSC Aviakor Aviation Plant) in Samara between 1981 and 1992. The aircraft have been deployed by the 121st Heavy Bomber Regiment at Engels Air Base and the 73rd Heavy Bomber Aviation Division at Ukrainka Air Base.
In December 2014, Tupolev handed over two upgraded Tu-95MS strategic bombers with improved avionics and flying efficiency to the Russian Air Force, as part of the state defence order. A further delivery of upgraded Tu-95MS was made in January 2015.
Two Tu-95MS aircraft performed a 17-hour patrol flight over the Aleutian Islands in May 2011. It was followed by a 10h air patrol flight over the Pacific Ocean in November 2011. Two Tu-95MS strategic bombers also performed a patrol flight over the Arctic Ocean for 20h in April 2012. Another patrol flight, which lasted 13h, was executed over the Norwegian Sea in November 2013.
The Tu-95MS successfully launched six high-precision cruise missiles at ground targets during a tactical flight test that lasted 7h in June 2014.
Design and features of Tu-95MS strategic bomber
The Tu-95MS strategic bomber features high-aspect ratio spar wing design and an improved, all-metal airframe. It is capable of engaging major stationary enemy targets under extreme weather conditions both during day and at night.
The aircraft is 49.6m-long and 13.3m-high, and is equipped with semi-monocoque fuselage and a retractable tricycle landing gear consisting of steerable twin-wheel nose unit and four-wheeled main units. Its maximum take-off and landing weights are 185t and 135t respectively and its maximum payload capacity is 20,000kg. The wings are swept back at 35° and the wing span is 50.05m.
The cabin in the front section of the fuselage accommodates a crew of seven, including a pilot and a co-pilot.
The Tu-95MS Bear-H aircraft is armed with two Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-23 twin-barrelled, 23mm automatic cannons at the rear for self-defence against airborne threats. Each cannon has a rate of fire of 2,400 rounds a minute. Six 2,500km-range Kh-15 air-launched cruise missiles are carried in the drum launcher.
The Tu-95MS-6 variant can be equipped with six Raduga Kh-55 (AS-15) subsonic air-launched cruise missiles in a rotary launcher, whereas the Tu-95MS-16 variant can carry 16 Kh-55 missiles externally.
The aircraft can be further modified to carry up to eight Kh-101 air-launched cruise missiles or 14 Kh-65 anti-ship missiles.
Avionics onboard the Tu-95MS Bear-H aircraft
The strategic bomber is installed with ANS-2009 celestial navigation system, developed by Concern Radio-Electronic Technologies (KRET), to determine the plane’s coordinates. The onboard new-generation BINS-SP-2M strapdown inertial navigation system, also developed by KRET, determines location of objects and provides navigation and flight data in the absence of satellite navigation.
The B-1B Lancer was developed by Rockwell International, now Boeing Defense And Space Group, and is the US Air Force long-range strategic bomber.
The aircraft is also fitted with Leninetz Obzor-MS clam pipe navigation and attack pulse-doppler radar, and Mak-UT missile approach warning system infrared (MAWS). It can be upgraded with new equipment for improved reliability.
The SPS-160 Geran series jammer aboard the Tu-95MS bomber provides self-defence from guided missiles. The bomber’s aerodynamic design allows it to fly at high-speed at a safe altitude. Two large fairings are fitted on the wings to reduce the drag.
An electric defrost system is installed protect the canopy, tail propeller blades, pilots and leading edges of the wings. The onboard electronic countermeasures (ECM) also include Meteor-NM computer-controlled ECM system, APP-50 chaff / flare dispensers and Avtomatika SPO-32 / L150 digital warning receiver.
Propulsion and fuelling
The Tu-95MS combat aircraft is powered by four NK-12MP turboprop engines, driving one eight-bladed, counter-rotating AV-60N auto-feathering propeller each. Manufactured by Kuznetsov Design Bureau, the engine has a take-off power of 15,000bhp and a pressure ratio of 9.7.
Internal fuel capacity of the aircraft is 84t. Fuel is stored in four tanks integrated in the outer wings, two centre wing tanks, and in the central fuselage tank. An air-to-air refuelling probe is fixed on the nose.
Tu-95MS bomber performance
The engines provide a maximum speed of 830km/h, a cruise speed of 550km/h and a flight range of 10,500km. The range can be extended up to 14,100km with one flight refuelling. Take-off and landing rolls of the bomber are 2,540m and 1,700m respectively, and the service ceiling is 10,500m.