September 19, 2010:
On September 11th, a Russian maritime reconnaissance aircraft flew low over an American frigate, which was in the Barents Sea heading towards Alaska. The Russian aircraft had its bomb bay doors open, which is generally considered an insult (as in "gotcha"). The Russian aircraft then did this again. The next day, a Russian warship showed up on the horizon, and sent its helicopter to circle the Taylor a few times. This is also considered an unfriendly act. What was ironic about this was that the American warship (the USS Taylor) was returning from a good will visit to the Russian port of Murmansk. At the same time, the Russian Defense Minister was in the United States visiting his American counterpart for the signing of agreements for defense cooperation. Moreover, Russia and the United States already had an agreement to not do this sort of thing, to avoid any deadly incidents (like American warships opening fire on "unidentified aircraft" getting too close.) Senior defense personnel from both countries quickly discussed these incidents, and the Americans announced they were satisfied with the Russian explanations (which were not made public).
Russian maritime patrol aircraft are often dangerous even without trying. Last year a Russian Tu-142M3 reconnaissance aircraft crashed twenty kilometers off the Pacific coast, during a training mission. The Tu-142 is a normally unarmed maritime patrol aircraft that, in the last few years, has resumed long range patrols. Such activity had been halted in the early 1990s. But now Russians take great pride in seeing these aerial behemoths once more prowling the high seas.
The Tu-142, which was introduced in the 1970s, is the patrol version of the Tu-95 heavy bomber. This aircraft entered service 51 years ago, and is expected to remain in service, along with the Tu-142 variant, for another three decades. But these elderly aircraft are increasingly expensive to maintain, and prone to developing unexpected problems. The one that crashed last year, disappeared without any message from the crew, and none of the eleven man crew survived.
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 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 711 kilometers an hour.
Originally designed as a nuclear bomber, the Tu-142 version 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 Tu-95 bomber version.
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 45,000 feet, although the aircraft flies much lower when searching for submarines.
Two years ago, the Russians announced that the Tu-142s were unarmed. There's no way to confirm that a Tu-142 is unarmed, as you cannot see what is in the bomb bays, unless the Russians open them up when fighter jets, from nearby countries, come to check out the Tu-142. The Russians requested that these nations take their word for it, and only send fighters that were also unarmed. The recent incident in the Barents Sea was apparently explained away as a friendly gesture, with the Russian aircraft opening its bomb bay doors to show that it had no weapons on board.