The Tupolev Tu-95: Over Six Decades of Service for Russia’s Long-Range Heavy Payload Turboprop
After more than sixty years in service, the Russian turboprop-powered Tupolev Tu-95 is still active because it can fly long distances while carrying a heavy payload.
Given that today, most heavy bombers, including the American B-52, are powered by jet engines, why are the Russians still flying turboprops? Before we get into that thought, let’s first look at the Tupolev Tu-95 and see how it came to be.
Back in the 1940s, following the end of the Second World War, the primary long-range heavy bomber of the Soviet Union was the Tupolev Tu-4. The aircraft was a copy of the American Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Several had made emergency landings in Russia during the war, and the Soviets copied them for its Air Force.
The Soviet Union wanted a bomber that would threaten the USA
Despite the Tu-4’s capabilities, the Soviets wanted a heavy bomber with a more extended range to threaten targets in the United States. By the late 1940s, piston-powered aircraft were being replaced by turboprops.
The engines selected for the Tu-95 were four
Kuznetsov turboprop engines fitted with two contra-rotating four-blade propellors. The reason the Soviets went with turboprop engines was because the early jet engines burned too much fuel. By using turboprops, the Tu-95 could stay in the hour for hours at a time without the need to refuel.
The Tupolev Tu-95 made its maiden flight in November 1952 and entered service with the Soviet Air Force in 1956. On October 30, 1961, a modified Tu-95 was used to carry and deploy a Nuclear bomb nicknamed Tsar Bomba. At the time, it was the most powerful thermonuclear device ever tested. Along with its ability to carry and deploy the Tsar Bomba, the versatile aircraft could also be used to deliver a forty-two-kiloton RDS-6S thermonuclear bomb and a RP-30-32 200-kiloton bomb.
The Tu-95 has been adapted to deploy cruise missiles
Over the years, the Tupolev Tu-95 has been upgraded similarly to the way the United States has done with its B-52s. Besides delivering nuclear bombs, the Tu-95 has been adapted to deploy cruise missiles and perform maritime patrols.
From the Cold War till now, the Tu-95, named “Bear” by NATO, is often used to test the fighter-interceptor capabilities of NATO Air Forces and is often seen flying close to Scotland and Alaska. Unlike the B-52, the Tu-95 never carried nuclear weapons on training flights as it hindered their mission readiness.
In Soviet times and even today in the Russian Federation, nuclear weapons are stored in specially hardened bunkers and loaded onto the aircraft via a trench. Preparing and arming a Tu-95 with a nuclear device could take two hours.
Fitted with new electronics and upgraded targeting systems, the more modern Tu-95MS can carry 16 200-kiloton nuclear AS-15 Kent cruise missiles. To put this into perspective, each atomic cruise missile is ten times more powerful than the 10,000-pound “Fat Man” nuclear bomb the Americans dropped on Nagasaki in 1945.
Operated by a seven-person crew, the Tu-95 is so noisy that it can be detected flying overhead by submerged submarines. Despite its lack of stealth and ability to fly at most 575 miles per hour, the Russian Federation Air Force has no other aircraft that can carry the weapons load of Tu-95.
The Russian Air Force could be using the Tu-95 into the 2040s
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the Russian defense industry fell into disarray and has not since recovered. This is evident in the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, with Russia forced to use tanks that date back to the 1950s T-54.
Before the so-called “Special Operation” that was expected to last a week, Russia was said to be developing a jet-powered plane to replace the Tu-95. As things stand, the turboprop-powered Tu-95 is no match for NATO air defenses. Still, because of its ability to be used as a standoff delivery system for nuclear cruise missiles, it will most probably remain in service with the Russian Air Force into the 2040s.