April 26, 2012:
Starting on April 16th Russia began conducting training exercises with 40 of its hundred heavy bombers. All this was done near the maritime border with Japan, apparently to show the Japanese that Russia is determined to hold onto the disputed Kuril Islands. Ten Tu-22Ms and 30 Tu-95MSs practiced bombing, aerial refueling, and launching cruise missiles.
The Tu-95 aircraft (called "the Bear" in the West) entered service over half a century ago and is expected to remain in service, along with the Tu-142 variant, for another three decades. Over 500 Tu-95s were built and it is the largest and fastest turboprop aircraft in service. Russia still maintains a force of 50 Tu-95MSs (a missile carrying version from the 1980s) and fifteen Tu-142s (for maritime reconnaissance). There are dozens of Tu-95s in storage, which can be restored to service as either a bomber or a Tu-142. The 188 ton aircraft has a flight crew (for the Tu-95 version) 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 and electronic monitoring gear). There are two 23mm autocannons mounted in the rear of the aircraft. The Tu-95MS is designed to carry up to sixteen large cruise missiles each.
The Tu-22 is a 1970s design. It's a 126 ton, twin-engine, swing wing aircraft with a crew of four (two pilots, a bombardier, and defensive systems operator). Originally it had a 23mm cannon mounted in a tail turret. It normally carries 12 tons of bombs and missiles (including up to four cruise missiles) but can carry 24 tons over shorter distances. Max speed is 2,300 kilometers an hour and combat radius is 2,400 kilometers. Originally equipped for aerial refueling this capability was removed in the early 1980s to comply with the SALT treaty (which reduced U.S. and Russian nuclear capabilities). The Tu-22M was roughly equivalent to the 45 ton FB-111. Russia hopes to have a new bomber design in service by 2030, to replace the aging Tu-22M3Ms.
Russia is upgrading 30 of its Tu-22M3 bombers to the Tu-22M3M standard. The first of the M3M models recently entered service. This new version has improved electronics, is able to deliver smart bombs, and has in-flight refueling capabilities restored. Other components of upgraded aircraft were refurbished as needed. This is expected to keep these 30 Tu-22M3Ms in service for another decade or more. All 30 upgrades will not be completed until the end of the decade.
A decade ago Russia had over a hundred Tu-22M3 "Backfire" bombers in service. Or so it was claimed, as these aircraft didn't fly much. When the Cold War ended in 1991, over 300 were still in service. About 500 were produced between 1969 and 1993. The Tu-22M saw combat in Afghanistan, where it carpet bombed areas thought to contain Afghan rebels. Some were also used in the 2008, war with Georgia. Efforts to find export customers failed.
Russia still has some Cold War era Kh-55 (AS-15) cruise missiles available for use by these heavy bombers. Five years ago an upgrade, the Kh-555, appeared. This missile is six meters (19.8 feet), weighs 1.6 tons, and has a range of 3,000 kilometers. The 364 kg (800 pound) conventional warhead appears to be a cluster bomb type (carrying bomblets). The missile uses inertial and satellite supplied guidance and can hit within six meters of its aiming point. Russia says it will use these missiles to attack terrorist bases in foreign countries. There was also a nuclear version but this does not appear to be in regular service.
Currently, Tu-160 and Tu-95MS heavy bombers normally carry a dozen Kh-555 missiles each. The Tu-22M can carry four of them. Thus the recent Russian air exercises off northern Japan put 400 cruise missiles, aimed south and able to hit anywhere in the Japanese islands.