WASHINGTON, Oct. 27 (UPI) -- Who could have imagined, when the Soviet Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bomber first flew in 1951, that it would be one of the centerpieces of Russia's nuclear war forces in the first decade of the 21st century, 57 years later?
For the Tu-95MS (NATO designation Bear) was one of two centerpiece strategic bombers, along with the spectacular supersonic Tupolev Tu-160 White Swan (NATO designation Blackjack) in Russia's huge Stability-2008 military exercises in September.
From Oct. 6-12, the front-line long-range strategic nuclear bombers have carried out a new series of major weeklong exercises, the Russian air force announced last week.
Russia is still producing new Tu-160 Blackjacks, and no wonder: They fly twice as fast as a B-2 "Stealth Bomber" and can carry twice the payload. But the continued relevance of the enormous, lumbering Tu-95 is astonishing. It flies at less than one-third the speed of the Tu-160 Blackjack, and its engines are powered by a technology that U.S. Air Force planners had written off as a joke 65 years ago.
When the Tu-95 first took to the air, the U.S. Air Force was already flying vastly faster, turbojet-powered Boeing B-47 Stratojets and had the famous Boeing B-52 Stratofortress coming down the line. Compared to them, the Tu-95 looked like it belonged in Jurassic Park.
But as we have noted, the combination of air-launched cruise missile technology -- which was already fitted to the Tu-95 nearly 20 years ago -- and the aircraft's exceptionally long range, low rate of fuel consumption and, most of all, its unmatched aerial endurance, has made it ideal as a flying platform that can stay aloft for 18 to 19 hours at a time, carrying up to six KH-55 (NATO designation AS-15 Kent) cruise missiles in its capacious bomb bay, immune from any pre-emptive nuclear attack.
This capability and longevity therefore put the Tu-95 in the remarkable category of "Cinderella" aircraft that have proved war winners in roles very different from the ones for which they were originally conceived.
Another was the British World War II Hawker Typhoon fighter bomber. Originally conceived as an air superiority fighter, it was just too large, too unstable and too un-maneuverable for that role.
But the Typhoon unexpectedly found two far more important missions: It proved to be the greatest ground support tactical attack aircraft the British and U.S. Air Forces ever had in World War II, and it played a decisive role in interdicting and destroying the German army in the West in the Battle of Normandy in 1944.
The citizens of London had even more reason to love the huge, ugly but super-fast Typhoon: It proved the only Allied combat aircraft capable of intercepting and shooting down the thousands of V-1 "Flying Bomb" vengeance weapons that Germany was firing at the British capital in 1944. When the Typhoon pilots ran out of ammunition, they flew their planes alongside the jet-propelled, unmanned Flying Bombs and tipped them over with their wings to crash harmlessly in the English countryside below.
Like the Tu-95, the British Fairey Swordfish biplane seemed like an obsolete joke by 1941. Where sleek fighter planes of the day already could fly at 350 miles per hour without breaking a sweat, the Swordfish was lucky to make 100 miles per hour and often had to fly more slowly than that to conserve fuel. Against a heavy Atlantic headwind, the ungainly, ugly little old aircraft often just appeared to be standing still.
But in May 1941, the sophisticated, state-of-the-art anti-aircraft systems of the German battleship Bismarck, the most accurate and powerful warship in the world, proved useless against those same little lumbering, ungainly Swordfish. They were so inconceivably slow that the settings for the Bismarck's bristling anti-aircraft armaments couldn't be adjusted to compensate for them.
The last, crucial Swordfish attack from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal jammed the Bismarck's rudder and wrecked its steering mechanism, making it a sitting duck to be finished off by British battleships the next day. Not a single old biplane was even seriously damaged in the attack.
These examples teach the sobering importance of not trusting too much in high-tech wonder weapons, and encouraging national defense contractors to keep their production lines and maintenance depots open and prepared to provide un-sexy, low-tech and improbable weapons of every kind to wage and win wars.
Like its American near contemporary, the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, the old Tu-95 Bear is fulfilling a major strategic role in the 21st century that its brilliant designer Andrei Tupolev could not have imagined back in 1950 when he reluctantly concluded that Russian turbojet technology could not give his new bomber the range it needed.
However, what was old-fashioned and cause for contempt in 1950 looks more formidable than ever in 2008. As the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes sagely warned thousands of years ago, "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but time and chance happen to them all."