UPDATED | A Russian Air Force Tupolev Tu-95 (“Bear”) strategic bomber went down on Tuesday at around UTC 06:50 in Siberia, the Ministry of Defence in Moscow stated. It also stated seven crew members bailed out using parachutes. Two more crew members died in the crash however.
According to the official statement the Tu-95 was unarmed, executing a routine training exercise when it encountered problems in mid-air about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the city of Khabarovsk in Siberia. The crash site is about 30 miles (50 km) from the city in an uninhabited area.
The Bear crash is the sixth of a Russian Air Force plane in as many weeks time and the second of a Tu-95 in roughly more than a week. On 6 July both pilots of a Bear Tu-95 were killed when the bomber ended off the runway at Ukrainka Airbase. Earlier a Sukhoi Su-24M went down, as well as two MiG-29s. A Su-34 landing went wrong near Moscow.
On Monday July 6th, a Tu-95 strategic bomber suffered an engine fire and overshot the landing strip at Ukrainka Airbase in the Russian Far East, where flights against Japan and the Western United States are conducted. Both pilots were killed.
The Tu-95s (Туполев Ту-95 in Russian) have been in service since 1956. Of the more than 500 built under Soviet Union times, 56 or 57 remain in service since today’s crash but many are likely not in airworthy condition. They are tasked with strategic bombing and are nuclear capable.
The Russian Tu-95 Bear long range bomber aircraft are grounded following an accident in which a fire erupted on board an aircraft, Russian media reported on June 9. The fire broke out in an engine and caused the aircraft to leave the runway at Ukrainka airfield, injuring several crew members.
The Russian Air Force’s Bear aircraft – 71 in total – will remain on the ground while an investigation into the fire takes place. The Bear is perhaps the most visibile example of Russian air power, since the type is regularly seen in the skies near Western Europe during military exercises. Many of last year’s NATO scrambles where direct at Bear bombers taking part in such exercises.
The very first prototype Bear, featuring massive contra-rotating propellers, first flew on 2 November 1952, only months after its US counterpart, the B-52 Stratofortress. With the Bears grounded, Russia falls back on its limited fleet of Tu-160 Blackjack bombers for its long range strike capability.
The Russian Air Force is planning to modernize 13 long-range bombers this year, according to a statement by Russian Minister of Defence Sergey Shoygu on 1 March 2015.
In 2014 two Tupolev Tu-160 (NATO-name “Blackjack”) and five Tu-95MS (NATO-name “Bear”) upgraded strategic bombers were rotated back to active duty. By 2020 seventy percent of the Russian long-range bomber fleet is expected to have gone through the update program.
Meant to keep the Tupolevs longer in service, the Russian Defence Ministry did not elaborate on how many more years they are supposed to serve. “But our strategic missile carriers will be on the forefront of protecting the motherland,” Mr. Shoygu said. That includes them going for ‘outings’ to get photographed by NATO aircraft like the RAF Typhoons lately and training on in-flight refuelling.
In the cold skies over the English Channel, Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoons met up with Russian Tu-95 Bears again on Wednesday 28 January. The Russian long range bombers aircraft were detected by the RAF Control and Reporting Centre in Boulmer, after which two Typhoons were scrambled from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland.
The Typhoons visually identified and escorted the Russian aircraft through and out of the UK Flight Information Region (FIR). The Bears did not enter UK airspace. Air-to-air refueling for the Typhoons was provided by an Airbus Voyager MRTT from Brize Norton. Total mission time for the entire mission was 12 hours, according to the RAF.
Last year, Russian aircraft became a familiar sight in Europe. Not only strategic bombers, but also tactical bombers such as the Su-34 Fullback showed themselves, sometimes at very close range. According to NATO, over 400 intercepts were carried out on Russian aircraft in 2014. Especially 28 and 29 October proved to be busy days.
While Norway reports business as usual, from Latvia, Estonia and Sweden total different reports have come in on 8 December on recent Russian military air activity in the area. The Russian Air Force sent a few of its rare sights – over the Baltics that is – out over sea during over the weekend: Tu-95 Bears and Tu-22M Backfires.
The strategic bombers were co-acting with Russian navy vessels during a maritime training exercise. Although closely watched by NATO, Sweden and Finland, sources say that none of the planes intruded airspace of other nations. But especially in Sweden the matter of nuclear capable planes has been noticed.
“Russia has been flying Tu-95 strategic bombers over the Baltic Sea. I doubt this has ever happened before. Certainly not in recent decades,” former Swedish Foreign Minister and currently “entrepreneur in future and peace” tweeted in response. With the current Swedish government waiting for the next elections only two months after it started its job, Mr. Bildt is still a main voice on foreign affairs for the largest Scandinavian country.
But Bildt’s statement has been somewhat downplayed from Latvia, where a defence sources say that it has happened as recently as September this year and many times before that. One thing is certain though, Moscow’s geopolitical game is getting noted.