Last week, Tupolev Joint Stock Company director general Alexander Konyukhov told Russian media that the Defense Ministry will soon receive seven Tu-95MS strategic cruise missile carriers for the country's Aerospace Defense Forces. The delivery will add to a Tu-95MS plane delivered to the military in April.
Commenting on the news in an analysis for Russia's Svobodnaya Pressa online newspaper, Tuchkov noted that upon first glance, "it might seem that it's time for the legendary Tu-95, which NATO has given the name 'Bear', to retire. It has certainly reached its pensionable age, having been adopted by the country's long-range aviation over half-a-century ago, in 1956."
Factually, Tuchkov recalled, the modernization of the Tu-95 began in the mid-1960s, when ASW version of the aircraft, the Tu-142, was created. A deep modernization of the original aircraft, "the Tu-142 featured a modified tail and wings, together with a more powerful engine. In addition, the designers finally attended to the working conditions of the crew, charged with carrying out many hours of patrolling…Naturally, the upgrade was also equipped with updated avionics."
A decade later, the Tu-142 was itself modernized, becoming the Tu-142M. "Subsequently, the new ideas of this project were incorporated into the creation of the Tu-95MS. It's production at the Kuibyshev Aircraft Factory began in 1981, with 88 strategic bombers built in 11 years. Effectively, Tuchkov noted, the oldest plane is now 35 years old, and the youngest 24 years old, "which for such machines isn't really old age at all."
"It's also worth noting that the Tu-95MS was produced in two modifications – the Tu-95MS-6 and the Tu-95MS-16. The first is equipped with missile armament, placed in the plane's bomb bay and on two nodes on the plane's external suspension. 31 planes of this kind were produced."
The Tu-95MS-16 is capable of carrying 16 Kh-55 cruise missiles of various modifications, including a nuclear-armed missile with a 200 kiloton yield, and a strike range of between 2,000-3,500 km.
"Currently," the expert noted, "Russian long-range aviation includes 60 Tu-95MS and Tu-95MSM (the so-called missile carriers having undergone upgrades). Three of them, as well as 580 Kh-55 cruise missiles, were purchased from Ukraine as barter repayment for Russian natural gas supplies. Shortly following the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine inherited 23 Tu-95MS aircraft. The US demanded that Ukraine destroy most of the rest; two became museum pieces, and two missile carrier variants disappeared during the Yanukovych years."
The missile carrier version received new instrumentation in the 1980s, as well as a new engine – the NK-12MP, created at the Samara-based Kuznetsov Design Bureau. That engine design is an upgraded version of the NK-12MV used by the Tu-95, featuring higher reliability and ease of maintenance.
"But perhaps the most important development is that the aircraft is set to be equipped with the new Kh-101 and Kh-102 cruise missiles, the former armed with 400 kg of high explosives, and the latter with a 250 kiloton nuclear warhead."
The expert recalled that the Kh-101 and Kh-102 were "created by the Fakel Design Bureau over the course of over ten years. Engineers managed to combine a 5,500 km range and accuracy within 5-6 meters. The missile also includes a variable profile and reduced flight visibility…enabling it to break through enemy air defenses. It's capable of flying at heights between 30 and 10,000 meters, and operates at transonic speed [between 965-1,236 km/h]."