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Aging Tu-95 Nuclear Missile Platform Offers New Strategic Threat

The long range of the KH-55 AS-15 Kents means that the Tu-95MS Bears have been transformed once again into a formidable strategic weapons system -- vastly more dangerous, indeed, than they were back in the 1950s when they were the best the Soviet Union had to offer.
by Martin Sieff
Washington (UPI) Oct 23, 2008
Russia's venerable Tupolev Tu-95 bomber is a gigantic, lumbering and slow behemoth that flies with turbine-driven propellers. It has an engine technology that the U.S. Air Force wouldn't be caught dead with since before 1950. So how come it now poses a formidable strategic threat to the United States and its NATO allies in the 21st century?

The giant Tu-95 (NATO designation Bear) was one of the most familiar signature aircraft of the Cold War. Yet it played center stage over the past month along with the vastly faster and more formidable Tupolev Tu-160 White Swan (NATO designation Blackjack) in the largest strategic exercises the Russian air force has conducted in nearly a quarter century.

During the exercises, codenamed Stability-2008, Tu-95MS Bears fired live air-launched cruise missiles -- ALCMs. It was the first time since 1984 the giant aircraft had actually done that in any exercise, and only the second time in history that they had.

But those cruise missiles are what have given the Tu-95 an unlikely but formidable new lease on life in the new century. Russia's KH-55 ALCMs (NATO designation AS-15 Kent) are very good indeed. They fly three times as fast as their American counterpart, the venerable Tomahawk ALCM. The Tomahawk is subsonic, but the KH-55 can fly three times as fast. They have a maximum speed of well over 1,900 miles an hour -- Mach 2.8 -- at sea level, and they have a range of 2,000 miles. That means that if they are launched outside U.S. legal airspace in a surprise attack, they could hit any target anywhere in the United States when fired from off the Eastern Seaboard or the West Coast.

It is certainly true that the slow old TU-95MS Bear -- with a cruising speed of less than 500 miles per hour -- would be easy pickings for U.S. air superiority fighters defending the homeland. They would even have been shot down like giant flies 46 years ago if the Cuban Missile Crisis had escalated to a thermonuclear showdown between the superpowers.

But the long range of the KH-55 AS-15 Kents means that the Tu-95MS Bears have been transformed once again into a formidable strategic weapons system -- vastly more dangerous, indeed, than they were back in the 1950s when they were the best the Soviet Union had to offer.

Today, Tu-95s can fly holding pattern patrols 1,500 miles to 2,000 miles away from any prospective targets along the U.S. East and West Coasts and far beyond the range of any homeland-based U.S. Air Force fighter squadrons.

Yet by staying airborne, any one or two TU-95s at any time can remain invulnerable to U.S. land- and submarine-based intercontinental ballistic missiles targeted on Russian Strategic Missile Forces bases or Russian air force bases. Their cruise missiles are vastly more difficult to intercept than a conventional intercontinental ballistic missile. Their cruise missiles do not fly in straightforward and easily predictable ballistic flight paths. Nor do they have limited in-flight maneuvering and evasion capabilities that the most modern Russian ICBMs such as the Topol-M have.

Instead, cruise missiles are programmed to fly along the contours of the earth, flying around, or up and over, mountains and hills, or even following the course of rivers. Therefore they are far more difficult to intercept, especially because they are also programmed to fly very low, confounding the most sensitive and effective U.S. radar systems that are designed to enable Ground-based Mid-course Interceptors -- GBIs -- to home in on and destroy ICBMs in mid-flight.

Each Tu-95 can carry and launch as many as six KH-55 ALCMs. They are far cheaper and easier to maintain and operate than the huge, supersonic Tu-160 Blackjacks and the Kremlin has far more of them.

According to a recent report from the RIA Novosti news agency, the Russian air force currently operates no fewer than 40 Tu-95MS Bears, compared to only 16 Tu-160 Blackjacks.

Add up all these advantages -- and a few more -- and the Tu-95 looks like being around for a few more decades yet.

Part 2: How 55-Year-Old Propeller-Driven Engines Trump 21st Century Technology
How do Russia's 55-year-old propeller-driven engines on its venerable Tupolev Tu-95 MS bombers trump 21st century ballistic missile defense technology?

U.S. Air Force and intelligence analysts back in the 1950s wrote off the Tu-95 (NATO designation Bear) as soon as it took to the skies. The U.S. Air Force already had made the transition to an all turbojet-powered strategic bomber fleet, pioneered by the beautiful and groundbreaking Boeing B-47 that was operational by 1951. With its huge size and swept-back wings, the Tu-95 looked like an aging, unattractive and very un-trendy elder brother of the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, which was already on operational duty with the U.S. Strategic Air Command by 1955.

U.S. analysts at first thought the Tu-95, which entered serial production in January 1956, would be lucky to have a cruising speed of more than 400 miles per hour. In fact, it was much faster than that. Today's MS-95 has a maximum speed of 575 miles per hour and a cruising speed above 500 miles per hour.

That doesn't hold a candle to any Mach-2, 1,300 mph to 1,700 mph air superiority fighter/interceptor aircraft that the major Western air forces have fielded for decades. But those improbably old-fashioned turbine-powered engines driving propellers are the secret to the Tu-95's longevity and improbably prominent 21st century life.

Turboprop engine technology was pioneered by British engineers in the 1950s, but it was quickly eclipsed by the speed and reliability offered by jet engine technology. Using the experience and systems pioneered on its great B-47 and B-52 bombers, Boeing broke into the jet civilian airliner market in the late 1950s with its classic 707 and never looked back. No air force bomber or large-scale airliner in the world has been built using turboprop technology ever since.

However, turboprop technology has two huge related advantages for large military aircraft. They use far less fuel than turbojets, and that means large aircraft, like the Tu-95, which is capable of carrying great amounts of fuel, can stay airborne for very long periods of time.

This is the Tu-95's ace in the hole. It has a range of 9,400 miles and a maximum speed of 575 miles per hour. Therefore, cruising at 500 miles per hour, a single Tu-95 carrying its strategic armament of six Kh-55 (NATO designation AS-15 Kent) nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles can stay aloft almost 19 hours. If the cruising speed is slower and the rate of fuel consumption is therefore reduced, the Tu95 can remain in the air for even longer periods. This makes it ideal as a flying platform from which ALCMs can be launched against U.S. or Western European strategic targets without being vulnerable to a pre-emptive military strike like missiles located in fixed ground silos.

Even road- and rail-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles can be vulnerable to pre-emptive nuclear air bursts or electromagnetic pulse attacks from nuclear weapons detonated high in the atmosphere above areas where they are known to be deployed. But ALCMs carried on long-range, high-endurance Tu-95s are not vulnerable to that kind of attack.

Far more modern Tupolev Tu-160 White Swans (NATO designation Blackjack) have comparably long ranges but can fly twice as fast and carry twice as many KH-55 ALCMs -- 12 as opposed the Tu-95's six. But the 1,380 mph, Mach-2 Blackjack -- an aeronautical marvel though it is -- is also extremely expensive to build. The Russian air force has ordered more of them, but it still has only about 16 operational, according to official Russian statements. By contrast, it has 40 Tu-95s still operational.

(Part 3: Keeping the Tu-95 operational in the 21st century)

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