Tupolev Tu-95: The Soviet-Era Bomber That Could See Nearly 100 Years of Active Service

Photo Credit: aviation-images.com / Universal Images Group / Getty Images
Photo Credit: aviation-images.com / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

Know by NATO as the “Bear,” the Tupolev Tu-95 is a turboprop-powered strategic bomber operated by the Russian Aerospace Forces. Dating back to the Cold War, the aircraft has undergone several modifications over the decades, allowing it to still be in service over 70 years after it underwent its first test flight.

Developing a new bomber for the Soviet Union

Tupolev Tu-95 in flight
Tupolev Tu-95, 1983. (Photo Credit: CORBIS / Getty Images)

In 1950, just five years after the conclusion of the Second World War, a request was issued to Soviet aircraft manufacturers for a new bomber. Along with the ability to carry upwards of 24,000 pounds of munitions, it was requested that this new aircraft have the ability to fly 5,000 miles without refueling. This would allow it to threaten targets in the United States.

A year later, Tupolev submitted a design featuring a turboprop power configuration, which was ultimately selected by the Soviet government. Drawing heavily on the lessons learned from the development of the Tu-16, this new bomber, dubbed the Tupolev Tu-95, first took to the skies in November 1952.

Just over two years later, in January 1955, the aircraft was officially approved for mass production, with around 500 being built.

Tupolev Tu-95 specs.

Tupolev Tu-95 in flight
Tupolev Tu-95, 2007. (Photo Credit: DoD Media / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The Tupolev Tu-95 features a unique swept-wing design that sees the wings set back at a 35-degree angle. The bomber is powered by four Kuznetsov NK-12 turboprop engines, designed by a team of German prisoner-engineers who’d been captured and taken to the Soviet Union as war reparations – part of Operation Osoaviakhim. They had experience in aircraft manufacturing as a result of their work with Junkers prior to their imprisonment.

A turboprop engine was selected because of its increased power when compared to more conventional power plants. The four NK-12s powered eight-bladed contra-rotating propellors, allowing the Tu-95 to reach a top speed of 575 MPH and a maximum range of 9,300 miles.

The Tu-95 is one of the loudest military aircraft ever developed. The cause of its ear-piercing sound is that the propellor blade tips move faster than the speed of sound. It’s rumored submarine crews can hear the aircraft while submerged, while others claim the aircrews, made up of between six and seven crewmen, suffered hearing loss as a result of flying the bomber.

In terms of armament, the Tu-95 is equipped with two 23 mm Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-23 autocannons in its tail turret, and it can carry up to 33,000 pounds of missiles, thanks to a host of recent upgrades.

Modernizing the Tupolev Tu-95

Tupolev Tu-95MS in flight
Tupolev Tu-95MS, 2020. (Photo Credit: Andrei Shmatko / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

In 2000, after decades of service, the Russian Aerospace Forces began exploring ways to modify the Tupolev Tu-95, with design work beginning nine years later. While the older models would be left as-is, those built after 1986 (the Tu-95MS16 onward) saw upgrades performed.

Along with the addition of new hard points, more powerful Kuznetsov NK-12MPM turboprop engines and AV-60T propellers,  several new systems were installed, including Novella NV1.021 passive electronically scanned array radar and the Meteor-NM2 airborne defense complex.

The Tu-95 has, finally, been given the capability to carry newer missiles and weapons, such as the Kh-101/102. Whereas, before, the Cold War-era bomber only dropped conventional munitions, these changes have transformed it into a powerful cruise missile platform.

Overall, these upgrades will allow the Tu-95 to remain operational until at least 2040.

Tupolev Tu-95 variants and derivatives

Tupolev Tu-142MR in flight
Tupolev Tu-142MR, 1990. (Photo Credit: US Navy / DoD Media / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

While there are many variants and derivatives of the Tupolev Tu-95, three stand out as being the most interesting. The first, the Tu-142, is a version of the bomber that was modified to perform maritime patrols and anti-submarine warfare. Developed as the Soviets’ response to America’s Polaris program, it has a longer fuselage, a reinforced undercarriage, and improved systems and weapons.

The second derivative, the Tu-114, has since been retired, but that doesn’t make it any less notable. A passenger airliner, it was developed as a replacement for the Ilyushin Il-62. The largest and fastest commercial aircraft during the 1950s, it has held the title of the fastest propeller-driven aircraft ever developed since 1960 – nothing has beat it (yet).

Finally, there’s the Tu-95MS, a variant featuring a host of upgrades. This includes a new missile carrier platform, based on that of the Tu-142’s airframe. Put into production in 1981, this update saw the bomber given the ability to fire the Raduga Kh-55 cruise missile. After this, the Tu-95MSM was developed, featuring such changes as the addition of a rotary launcher and four underwing hard points.

Seeing service well after the end of the Cold War

Three Tupolev Tu-95MS bombers in flight
Tupolev Tu-95MS bombers, 2020. (Photo Credit: Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

The Tupolev Tu-95 officially entered service with the Long-Range Aviation section of the Soviet Air Forces in 1956. A few years later, in the early-to-mid 1960s, the bomber was involved in several nuclear tests, including the dropping of Tsar Bomba. A modified Tu-95V, equipped with redesigned parts and covered in a protective and reflective paint, dropped the explosive from a parachute, to give it enough time to fly away before the detonation occurred.

The testing of Tsar Bomba, the most powerful thermonuclear bomb ever detonated, was the last time the Tu-95 saw military action until the Falklands War in the 1980s. During the conflict, the aircraft conducted intelligence-gathering missions over Ascension Island.

Beginning in 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the green light for Tu-95s to begin conducting long-range patrols and exercises, a first since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A few years later, the bomber set the world record for a non-stop flight in its class, with the aircraft remaining airborne for over 43 hours.

More from us: Sukhoi Su-35: The Russian Multirole Fighter That Screams Aerial Dominance

The Tu-95 first saw combat action when Russia began its military intervention in the Syrian Civil War. Long-range airstrikes were conducted on Syrian targets with Kh-101 cruise missiles. Years later, the bomber, again, saw combat, this time when the Russians launched their invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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