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Eastern Europe and Central Asia , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft

Russia's Tu-95 ‘Bear’ Heavy Bombers Receiving Major Enhancements; Lethal New Precision Strike Capabilities Pose a Major Threat to Potential Adversaries

July 16th - 2018

Seeing its first flight in the midst of the Korean War, the the Soviet Tu-95 ”˜bear’ strategic heavy bomber has long served as an analogue to the American B-52 Stratofortress - with both entering service at similar times and being extensively modernised to remain in service over six decades later. Upon entering service in 1956 the bomber was considered a highly formidable asset in Soviet hands, with an intercontinental range allowing it to strike the United States mainland from airbases across much of the Soviet Union. The United States notably developing the original F-4 Phantom as an interceptor largely with the targeting of the Tu-95 in mind due to the magnitude of the threat it was seen to pose - with the twin engine U.S. jet only later being equipped with a forward gun and extensive modification to function as an air superiority fighter during the Vietnam War. The Russian Air Force currently operates approximately 60 of the bombers, which have been extensively modernised with an emphasis being placed on standoff capabilities to allow them to engage enemy targets at extreme ranges. Unlike the U.S. B-2 Spirit, designed to drop bombs in penetrative strikes over enemy territory, the Tu-95 is considered too vulnerable to enemy air defences and combat aircraft to engage at short range - instead deploying advanced cruise missiles to allow it to better engage enemy targets from extreme ranges. Deploying Kh-55 cruise missiles, the bomber can reliably engage targets from ranges of up to 2,500km - or from a 3,000km if deploying the enhanced Kh-55SM variant. The bomber’s Kh-20 and Kh-22 missiles are also considered lethal assets for engaging targets at closer ranges of 600km, and they can strike at speeds of Mach 2 and Mach 4.6 respectively making them extremely difficult to intercept for enemy air defences. With the Tu-95 restricted to a low 13.7km altitude and with a speed of only Mach 0.75, standoff capabilities have long been key to its survivability where it would otherwise be extremely vulnerable to even basic fighter and air defence platforms.

The Tu-95 is notable for being one of the few combat aircraft still in service which makes use of propeller rather than jet engines, with four pairs of contra rotating propellers making it extremely loud. It is the only swept wing propeller driven combat aircraft to have been considered a successful design and produced in large numbers. The Tu-95 has been developed into a number of derivative platforms, including the Tu-95LAL which attempted to test a nuclear propulsion system, the Tu-142 anti submarine warfare aircraft, and even the Tu-114 and Tu-142 airliners. Tu-95 bombers currently in service are set to undergoing further modernisation in the near future which will further enhance their strike capabilities. These will include equipping the bombers with new Kh-101/102 long range cruise missiles, an advanced derivative of the Kh-55 which retains a number of advantages. These include a 50% range increase over the Kh-55SM to 4,500km, a high degree of accuracy impacting within 10-20 meters of the target, and enhanced survivability with stealth capabilities making the missiles more difficult to intercept. Alongside new missiles, the bombers will also gain the capability to retarget launched cruise missiles en route to their targets - part of a new avionics package with which a few bombers have already been equipped.

Mark Gunzinger, an analyst for the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Analyses and former B-52 pilot, stated regarding the bombers’ new ability to retarget their cruise missiles: “This is an important advance for the Russians, and will increase their operational flexibility/ability to respond to changing conditions in the battle space and pop-up target opportunities.” While the United States has long had a considerable lead in precision strike capabilities, with its aircraft among the only ones able to retarget missiles mid flight, new upgrades to the Russian bomber fleet are set to bring it up to speed - making up for much lost time during the 1990s when funds were not available for such enhancements. These new avionics combined with advanced new cruise missile technologies, with the Kh-101 and Kh-55 far surpassing the capabilities of missiles deployed by U.S. platforms such as the B-52 and B-1B which lack missiles capable of striking at even half the range of the Russian platforms, are set to provide the Russian Air Force with the world’s most capable bomber based standoff strike capabilities.


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