Naval Air: Unbearable Bears

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September 14, 2011: Japan has asked Russia not to fly its Tu-95/142 maritime reconnaissance aircraft so close to Japanese territorial waters so often. This request came after two Tu-95Ms recently flew completely around Japan, but stayed over international waters the entire time. The two aircraft also refueled in the air, and stayed aloft for at least 19 hours. Japan sees such incidents as related to Japanese efforts to negotiate a return of the South Kurile Islands, which were taken by Russia at the end of World War II. In contrast, the Russians see all this as an effort to rebuild their Cold War force of oceanic reconnaissance aircraft. This has not been easy. Such flights were common from the 1970s to the early 1990s. Then they stopped for a decade. But in the last eight years, these huge aircraft have against been seen over the high seas.

But maybe not for long. Old age is particularly cruel to maritime patrol aircraft. Last December, Russia grounded its force of 65 Tu-95MS and Tu-142 heavy bombers, because of a possible problem with the NK-12M turboprop engines. An AN-22 transport, which uses the same turboprop engine as the bombers, had recently crashed because of engine problems. These groundings are increasingly common and usually last a few weeks or a month. But eventually, these aging leviathans will have to retire for good.

The engine problems are not new either. In 2009, a Tu-142 crashed at sea, apparently because of engine problems, which led to another grounding. All these aircraft types are elderly, and care must be taken when components fail unexpectedly. For example, in the 1990s, cracks were found in the wings of some very old Tu-95s, and those aircraft were scrapped. Like all old aircraft, Tu-95/142s undergo constant inspection for age related problems.

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. 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 (a missile carrying version from the 1980s), 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-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). The Tu-95MS is designed to carry four or more large cruise missiles.

 


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