Thursday, October 30, 2008

Russia’s venerable Tupolev Tu-95 bomber is a gigantic, lumbering and slow behemoth that flies with turbine-driven propellers. It has an engine technology the U.S. Air Force wouldn’t have been caught dead with since before 1950. So how come it poses a formidable strategic threat to the United States and its NATO allies in the 21st century?

The giant Tu-95 (NATO designation: Bear) was one of the signature aircraft of the Cold War. It played center stage again in the past month along with the vastly faster and more formidable Tupolev Tu-160 White Swan (NATO designation: Blackjack) in the largest strategic exercises the Russian air force has conducted in nearly a quarter century.

During the exercises, code-named Stability-2008, Tu-95MS Bears fired live air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM). It was the first time since 1984 - and just the second time in history - the giant aircraft had done that in any exercise.

But those cruise missiles are what have given the Tu-95 an unlikely but formidable new lease on life in the 21st century. Russia’s KH-55 ALCMs (NATO designation: AS-15 Kent) are very good indeed. They fly three times as fast as their American counterpart, the venerable Tomahawk ALCM. The Tomahawk is subsonic, but the KH-55 can fly three times as fast. It has a maximum speed of more than 1,900 miles an hour, Mach 2.8, at sea level, and a range of 2,000 miles. That means that if the KH-55 AS-15 Kents are launched outside U.S. legal airspace in a surprise attack, they could hit any target anywhere in the United States when fired from off the Eastern Seaboard or the West Coast.

It certainly is true that the slow old Tu-95MS Bear, with a cruising speed of less than 500 mph, would be easy pickings for U.S. air-superiority fighters defending the homeland. They even would have been shot down like giant flies 46 years ago if the Cuban Missile Crisis had escalated to a thermonuclear showdown between the superpowers.

Nevertheless, the long range of the KH-55 AS-15 Kents means the Tu-95MS Bears have been transformed once again into a formidable strategic weapons system - vastly more dangerous than they were in the 1950s, when they were the best the Soviet Union had to offer.

Today, Tu-95s can fly holding-pattern patrols 1,500 miles to 2,000 miles away from any prospective targets along the U.S. East and West coasts and far beyond the range of any homeland-based U.S. Air Force fighter squadrons.

Yet by staying airborne, any one or two TU-95s at any time can remain invulnerable to U.S. land- and submarine-based intercontinental ballistic missiles targeted on Russian Strategic Missile Forces bases or Russian air force bases. Their cruise missiles are vastly more difficult to intercept than a conventional intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) because they do not fly in straightforward and easily predictable ballistic flight paths. Nor do they have limited in-flight maneuvering and evasion capabilities that the most modern Russian ICBMs such as the Topol-M have.

Instead, cruise missiles are programmed to fly along the contours of the Earth - flying around or up and over mountains and hills or even following the course of rivers. Therefore, they are far more difficult to intercept, especially because they also are programmed to fly very low, confounding the most sensitive and effective U.S. radar systems that are designed to enable ground-based midcourse interceptors to home in on and destroy ICBMs in midflight

Each Tu-95 can carry and launch as many as six KH-55 ALCMs. They are far cheaper and easier to maintain and operate than the huge, supersonic Tu-160 Blackjacks, and the Kremlin has far more of them.

According to a recent report from the RIA Novosti news agency, the Russian air force operates no fewer than 40 Tu-95MS Bears, compared with just 16 Tu-160 Blackjacks.

Add up all these advantages, and it looks as if the Tu-95 may be around for a few more decades yet.

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