Russia has leveled off its efforts to restore the Cold War level of long-range maritime reconnaissance. This can be seen in the number of times Norwegian F-16s were scrambled to intercept Russian aircraft headed out over the North Atlantic. Last year there were 34 such incidents, compared to 36 in 2010. In 2006, there were only 13 incidents, but that peaked at 47 in 2007, when Russia announced that its Cold War era levels of maritime reconnaissance were returning.
To make this increased Russian patrol activity happen, fifteen of the elderly Tu-142M3 reconnaissance aircraft have been refurbished, updated, and put back to work. The Tu-142 is an unarmed maritime patrol aircraft that, in the last five years, has resumed long range patrols. Such activity had been halted in the early 1990s.
The Tu-142, which was introduced in the 1970s, is the patrol version of the Tu-95 heavy bomber. This aircraft entered service over half a century ago and is expected to remain in service, along with the Tu-142 variant, for another quarter century. But these elderly aircraft are increasingly expensive to maintain, and prone to developing unexpected problems.
Over 500 Tu-95s were built, and it is the largest and fastest turboprop aircraft in service. Russia still maintains a force of 60 Tu-95s, but has dozens in storage, which can be restored to service as either a bomber or a Tu-142. The 188 ton aircraft has a flight crew consisting of a pilot, copilot, engineer, and radioman, and an unrefueled range of 15,000 kilometers. Max speed is 925 kilometers an hour, while cruising speed is 440 kilometers an hour. Originally designed as a nuclear bomber, the Tu-142 version still can carry up to ten tons of weapons (torpedoes, mines, depth charges, anti-ship missiles, sonobuoys) and a lot more sensors (naval search radar, electronic monitoring gear). There are two 23mm autocannon mounted in the rear of the aircraft. The mission crew of a Tu-142 usually consists of eight personnel, who operate the radars and other electronic equipment. Patrol flights for the Tu-142 can last twelve hours or more, especially when in-flight refueling is used. Maximum altitude is over 14,000 meters (45,000 feet), although the aircraft flies much lower when searching for submarines. Russia required aircraft like these for patrolling the vast expanses of the North Atlantic and North Pacific.