WASHINGTON, Oct. 24 (UPI) -- 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)