The Russian ‘Bear’ strategic bomber was built by the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War with the United States.
Its initial design was based on the concept of a ‘Cold War Nuclear Bomber’.
The military planners in the Soviet Union wanted to replicate the United States success of its strategic bomber force during the Second World War. These planned aircraft mission parameters were based on the ability to fly 5,000 miles to hit targets in the United States while also carrying twelve tons of bombs.
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However, as we shall see in this article the Russian Bear has become a symbol of a resurgent Russia, testing and probing NATO defences, while delivering missile strikes upon rebel targets in Syria. It is still a force to be reckoned with.
Its national origin was the Soviet Union, and its manufacturer was Tupolev. Its first flight was on the 12th November 1952, and was introduced to Soviet military service in 1956. It served with the Soviet Air Forces as well as the Soviet Navy, until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then, it has been operated by the Russian air force.
One of the most revealing features of this bomber is its predicted longevity, as it’s expected to serve the Russian air force until at least 2040. This is incredible and shows how both its design and function as a military bomber is timeless.
This was by no means a small engineering feet, and the jet engines of the time burned out too quickly, which gave new life to the propeller design. This design of a propeller pain with the ability to carry a heavy payload paid off. It was one of the fastest propeller planes in existence going at a speed of over 500 miles per hour.
An interesting quote by the National Interest (2016) says as follows:
“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 plans with swept – back wings, which only benefit aircraft at high speed. The TU-95 also had tremendous fuel capacity and could fly over nine thousand miles just using internal fuel”.
In terms of a routine Cold War bomber patrol fight, it would last ten hours, but for the Russian ‘bear’ propeller bomber it would last twice as long. The crew consisted of two pilots, and two navigators, with a crew that operated the guns and sensory systems. However, the increasing advances in military aircraft design rendered most bomber machine guns useless, and later variants would have only the tail gun.
The original design schematics for the Russian ‘Bear’ had two twin-barrel 23mm cannons in the belly and tail and a fixed gun in the nose. This was to act as a deterrence to any belligerence in the air.
The simple concept of the Russian bear meant it was to be used as a nuclear strike delivery aircraft. It would fly over the Arctic and drop nuclear bombs on targets in the United States. While the Russian ‘bear’ may be vulnerable to either anti-aircraft missiles or air-to-air missiles, the understanding was that some of the bombers would get through and deliver a crippling blow to the mainland United States.
However, nuclear strategic thinking shifted, and the Soviet Union considered a first-strike weapon to be housed in faster bombers as well as submarines. Therefore the new TU-95 had a different mission profile.
According to The National Interest (2016) article. The TU-95 was refitted for the following purposes (See Roblin, 2016):
- To address the vulnerability of the Russian bear bomber, it became a platform for long-range cruise missiles.
- The new TU-95ks would carry the KH-20 nuclear missile.
- The KU-20 missile would have a range of 300 to 600 miles.
- The Russian Bear would be used to shadow US Navy aircraft carrier battlegroups.
In addition, if there was an armed conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union the Soviet ‘bear’ bomber would launch a salvo of missiles which was designed to destroy US Navy ships and in particular carrier groups. In an actual war situation, the Soviet ‘Bear’ bomber would launch a crippling blow of numerous missiles to knock out the key capital ship, namely the aircraft carrier. Furthermore, the Bear’s ability to travel long distances means it could track enemy fleet movements and work within a squadron.
After the Cold War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West and NATO did not see Russia as a military threat. However, with the election of Putin, he re-initiated Russian ‘Bear’ patrols which would test the air defences of NATO countries by using the bombers to fly really close to their airspace and thereby alerting their radar systems. This is still going on even today, and this is symbolic of how we are creeping back to another Cold War.
It is worth remembering that all the TU-95 bombers currently in service, are the Tu-95MS variant which was built in the 1980s and 1990s.
Politically, as a sign of Russia’s aspiring to achieve its once-lost status as a Great Power, President Putin announced the Tu-95 would fly patrols – 15 years since they ended. In addition, during the Russian military exercise of Oct 2008, the Tu-95MS fired air-launched cruise missiles for the first time since the days of the Cold War, when tensions were at their peak in 1984. The combination of missile technology and the durability of the Tu-95 design means it can continue to function as a strategic missile bomber for many years to come right into the 21st century. Its longevity can be comparable to that of the USAF B-52 bombers.
For those who are interested in aircraft design, this is emblematic of how a design can stand up to the test of time. If there is one aircraft the Tu-95 could be compared to, I would say it would be the United States Air Force B-52 bomber in terms of longevity. I have previously argued that the B-52 could be in service for up to a century (Steward, 2019). This United States bomber is also predicted to see service into the 2040s (Wired, 2016). The Tu-95 was also created in 1952. What is even more fascinating is that in Russia’s Air Force inventory, there is a fleet of bombers which can exceed the speed of the ‘Bear’ bomber, as well as deliver a larger payload to its targets. However, this does not mean that this particular workhorse of the once Soviet now Russian Air Force is going to pack up anytime soon. Now we turn to Syria.
According to The National Interest, the Russian intervention in the Syrian campaign was the first time it the TU-92 saw combat as a bomber (Roblin, 2017). In the fall of 2015, The Russian government was proud to show the plane launching cruise missiles which went on to destroy the positions of Syrian rebels. It was the first time this bomber performed counter-insurgency operations and delivered a knockout blow from the air, with an impressive display of airpower.
To summarise, the Tu-95 still has the potential to strike fear, and admiration for those who have respect for an aircraft which has spent so long in service, and in a digital age still can perform a valuable function as a strategic bomber. Its new purpose is to serve the Russian national interest and to provide a ‘deterrence’ in the form of travelling and probing NATO airspace while also carrying out counter-terrorism operations in Syria by bombing rebel targets. It operates within the range of three continents, in Europe, Asia and North America, and tests out air-defence systems. While it is predicted this will stay in service for years to come, its mission profile and adaptability mean it is expected to continue into service until 2040, I personally predict this would be extended into the 2050s and beyond.
The Russian bear bomber took part in the initial assault against Ukraine, during the opening wave of missile strikes on the country back in February 2022 (Cenciotti, 2022). Furthermore, it took part in cruise missile strikes against Vinnystsia, Ukraine in March 2023, along with TU-160 strategic bombers – targeting the runway.
The advantage of these aircraft, in the context of the Ukraine conflict is that it can fly some distance, launch its cruise missiles and fly back to a bomber airbase, without fear of getting hit by a surface-to-air missile. During the Cold War, these bombers would be armed with nuclear cruise missiles, and at a distance would launch a ‘strike’ on NATO – at a distance. These military tactics have been refined, with the use of cruise missiles against Ukrainian military and civilian infrastructure (Ukrinform, 2023).
However, these aircraft have also been subject to ‘Drone’ attacks, as the Ukrainians launched modified ‘Soviet-era’ Drones to strike at a bomber airbase in December of 2022 (Newdick, 2023). Furthermore, these aircraft have also been flown close to NATO airspace, in order to demonstrate Russia’s resolve, in its willingness to undertake long-distance bomber missions close to NATO’s borders.
Cenciotti, D. (2022). ‘The Russian Attack On Ukraine Is Underway. And This Is A First Recap Of What Has Happened Thus Far., [Online] Available from: https://theaviationist.com/2022/02/24/russian-attack-on-ukraine/
Newdick, T. ‘Ukraine Modified Soviet-Era Jet Drones To Hit Bomber Bases, Russia Claims (Updated)’ [Online] Available from: https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/ukraine-modified-soviet-era-jet-drones-to-hit-bomber-bases-russia-claims
Steward, O. (2019). ‘Could the B-52 bomber fly for 100 years?’, UK Defence Journal, [Online] Available from: https://ukdefencejournal.org.uk/could-the-b-52-bomber-fly-for-100-years/
Roblin, S. (2016). ‘The Tu-95: Russia Has Its Very Own B-52 Bomber’, [Online] available from: http://nationalinterest.org/feature/the-tu-95-bear-russia-has-its-very-own-b-52-bomber-17571
Roblin, S (2017). ‘Russia’s Tu-95 Bear Bomber: Everything You Need to Know’, [Online] Available from: http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/russias-tu-95-bear-bomber-everything-you-need-know-20484
UKRINFORM (2023) ‘Missile Strikes on Vinnytsia airfield launched from Black Sea’ [Online] Available from: https://www.ukrinform.net/rubric-ato/3422140-missile-strikes-on-vinnytsia-airfield-launched-from-black-sea.html
Wired, (2016). ‘How on Gods Green Earth is the B-52 still in service’, [Online] Available from: https://www.wired.com/2016/04/gods-green-earth-b-52-still-service/