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.)