Warplanes: Bears Go Nuclear


June 23, 2014: In early June four Russian Tu-95 heavy bomber armed with cruise missiles flew down the west coast of Alaska and two of them kept going until they were off the coast of California. This was apparently another training mission. The bombers were on American radar all the way and were escorted some of the way by two F-22s and later two F-15s. This was not a unique incident.

Russia continues its decade old program of putting Cold War era heavy bombers back in service and having some of their training flights take them near the west coast of North America. This was what these aircraft did during the Cold War, when the mission was to be in the air, off the North American coast when the order was issued to launch their cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads.

The Tu-95 aircraft (called "the Bear" in the West) entered service in 1956 with the MS model appearing in 1981. Many existing Tu-95s are expected to remain in service, along with the Tu-142 variant, into the 2030s. The Tu-142 was introduced in the 1970s as the maritime patrol version, but the Tu-95 was used for this duty as well. 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 (originally designed as a missile carrying version), and fifteen Tu-142s. 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 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-95MS is designed to carry four or more large cruise (three ton) missiles. These aircraft are getting more expensive to maintain. Old age is particularly cruel and in the 1990s cracks were found in the wings of some very old Tu-95s. Those aircraft were scrapped and all other carefully examined. Like all old aircraft, Tu-95/142s undergo constant inspection for age related problems.

While Russia has not introduced any new bombers since the Cold War ended in 1991, they have continued to turn out new cruise missiles. One of these missiles was the Kh-102, a stealthy development of the Cold War era Kh-55. The Kh-102 had been in development for nearly two decades, but most work was halted in the 1990s because of money shortages. In 2002 there were reports that work had been resumed. Then in 2007 some appeared, hanging from a Tu-95MS.

 The Kh-102 began as upgrades of the Cold War era Kh-55 (AS-15) cruise missile. Then in 2007 a major 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.

The Kh-102 has a new shape, and a radar absorbing skin that makes it more difficult for radar to detect it. Otherwise, the Kh-102 weighs 2.3 tons, but has the range and payload of the Kh-555. The Kh-102 (and the non-nuclear Kh-101) were supposed to be in service by 2013 but it’s unclear if that happened yet. Apparently, the Kh-102 isn't going to replace Kh-555 missiles but complement them, at least until the Kh-555s are too old to maintain and are retired. That's a process that could take a decade or more. The Kh-101/2 is also meant to give Russia a cruise missile comparable to the current American Tomahawk.

Currently, Tu-160 and Tu-95MS heavy bombers are equipped to carry a dozen Kh-555 or Kh-102 cruise missiles each. The new fighters would apparently carry one or two of them.





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