October 28, 2010:
Russian naval aviation is facing a crisis, in that within the next five years, few of the navy's aircraft will be flyable. It's not that no one saw this coming, it's just that there were larger calamities to deal with. The collapse of the Soviet armed forces after 1991 (when the Soviet Union dissolved) was a catastrophic event, with the largest military establishment on the planet quickly losing 80 percent of its manpower. A lot more equipment stayed on the books, in theory. But over 100,000 tanks and aircraft were allowed to quietly fall apart in the 1990s, because there was little money or manpower available to maintain the stuff. Most of this stuff was eventually recycled, but little of it was replaced.
In the last decade, the Russian Air Force has been receiving new and refurbished aircraft, and the army has been getting new helicopters, and a lot of money for aircraft maintenance. The navy has gotten little besides a few feeble promises. Search and rescue aircraft (flying boats and helicopters), anti-submarine aircraft, bombers and jet fighters have all been wasting away since 1991, with no replacements at all in most categories, and little money for maintenance. Shipboard helicopters are now obsolete and lacking upgrades. Some new helicopters are promised (but not ordered yet), and new jet fighters for carrier operations are on order. But even this is being done more to try and keep MiG Aviation in business, by ordering MiG29s, than to replace the Cold War era Su-33s. More land-based jet fighters are promised, but not on order. The thinking seems to be that, since there's not much worth defending at Russian naval bases, why spend any money defending it.
There is one exception to this mess. 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 few years, have 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 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.
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 still carries 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.
Last year, 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 Russian navy has a large wish list of new helicopters, anti-submarine aircraft and bombers it would like to buy, but the government hasn't even made optimistic noises, much less assured the admirals that money was on the way.