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Last Updated: Monday, 10 September 2007, 12:31 GMT 13:31 UK
Russia's Bear bomber returns
By Neil Arun
BBC News

The Tupolev Tu-95 is an icon of the old Soviet arsenal, flying the flag for Russia's robust new foreign policy.

Tu-95 bomber on the ground
The Tu-95: Symbol of Soviet-era military might

The noisy long-range bomber, powered by four turboprop engines, entered service at the dawn of the Cold War in 1952.

More than 50 years later, the Russian air force is again taking the plane on flights that frequently attract Nato attention.

British, US and Norwegian fighter jets have scrambled recently to shadow the Russian bombers venturing near foreign airspace.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the bombers to resume their long-range patrols in August 2007, citing a security threat posed by other powers.

Nato fighter jets and the Tu-95 are familiar aerial adversaries - the plane is still known in the West by its old Nato nickname, "Bear".

During the Cold War, cat-and-mouse encounters were commonplace. A protocol rapidly evolved to reduce the risk of escalation.

Nato fighter jets would be scrambled to intercept the Russian bomber and escort it away.

Tupolev Tu-95 seen from above
Crew: Seven (two pilots, one tailgunner, four others)
Range: 15,000km (9,300 miles)
Service ceiling: 12,000m (39,600 ft)
Length: 49.5m (163ft)
Wing span: 51.1m (169ft)
For a few dangerous minutes, the planes were on each other's tails.

They were close enough sometimes for rival pilots to exchange smiles and waves, before returning to bases thousands of miles apart.

According to a Moscow-based aviation analyst, Yuri Karash, the Tu-95 is as iconic for many Russians as the B-52 bomber is for Americans.

It is the Cold War workhorse that never went out of fashion.

Mr Karash describes the plane as "a symbol of Russia's strategic air power". To the citizens of the former Soviet Union, it was associated with displays of military might and engineering prowess.

Distinguished veteran

A Tu-95 bomber was used for Russia's hydrogen bomb test in the Arctic in 1961.

The bomb was responsible for the largest man-made explosion recorded in history.

It had to be dropped by parachute to allow the plane's crew enough time to escape to safety.

A year earlier, a civilian version of the plane, the Tupolev Tu-114, was chosen to fly then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to a summit in New York.

Nikita Khrushchev (left) and Vladimir Putin (right)
The Tupolev spans the eras of Khrushchev (left) and Putin (right)
Mr Karash says the plane is still popular with Russia's military because of its familiarity, simplicity and economy.

"It's like an old buddy," Mr Karash says. "You know how it flies, how it bombs, you know everything about it."

"You can save money on its operation and maintenance. It's familiar to flight schools across Russia and there's no problem getting spare parts."

Nonetheless, Mr Karash says, it is not an easy aircraft to operate and "you wouldn't want to put a rookie in the cockpit".

Technical upgrade

The Tu-95 is one of the Russia's most versatile aircraft - and advances in missile technology mean it is unlikely to become redundant soon.

The aircraft that was developed to carry nuclear bombs is proving ideal for transporting a new generation of smaller, more accurate munitions.

Mr Karash says weapons such as the cruise missile now need no more than a "flying platform" to launch them, eliminating the need for sophisticated bomber jets.

The Russian military is currently refitting the Tu-95 bomber fleet with the latest navigation and avionics systems.

The accuracy of the new technology means there is less risk that such aircraft may accidentally stray into foreign airspace.

Mr Karash says an accurate onboard navigation system is now arguably the most important part of an aircraft as intimidating as the Tu-95.

"The responsibility is simply too big," he says - misreading the intentions of a nuclear-capable bomber can potentially provoke war.

Tu-95 graphic


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