- The Soviet Union fielded one of the most fearsome militaries in history for decades before its collapse in the early 1990s.
- Russia has been steadily rebuilding its military in the decades since then, and at the core of that modern and growing force are a few Soviet-era aircraft that are still flying missions all over the world.
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For nearly five decades, the US and its allies saw the Soviet Union as their greatest threat. The Soviet military's massive size and sophisticated weaponry made it one of the most powerful forces in history.
Thankfully, direct war between the Soviet Union and its NATO adversaries never happened. But that's not to say it never came close, and the Soviet and NATO militaries kept a close eye on each other.
This was especially true in the naval arena. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union maintained a large inventory of patrol aircraft, anti-submarine-warfare aircraft, and strategic bombers to track and, if need be, attack NATO naval units around the world.
The Cold War is over, but some of these aircraft are still in service with the Russian Air Force and Navy.
Perhaps the most well-known Soviet/Russian aircraft tasked with maritime patrol and attack is the Tupolev Tu-95, also known by its NATO reporting name, the Bear.
The Tu-95 entered service with the Soviet Air Force and Navy in 1956, replacing the Tu-4, a reverse-engineered copy of the American B-29. Able to fly up to about 40,000 feet and with a range of over 9,000 miles, the Bears could carry over 26,000 pounds of ordnance.
Tu-95s are best remembered for their intercontinental missions and nuclear tests. They flew many missions along NATO borders, forcing NATO to constantly look after them.
Early in its service with the Soviet Navy, the Bear was meant to carry missiles to attack enemy surface ships far from Soviet shores.
As the Cold War continued, however, the Tu-95 became antiquated and was shifted to the reconnaissance and electronic surveillance roles. This version was called the Tu-142 Bear F/J.
The Tu-142 proved quite capable at tracking surface vessels and submarines and acted as a communication relay for Russian submarines as well.
But the Bear's capabilities are still limited. Because they are so old, Bears frequently crash, so much so that the entire fleet was grounded in 2015. They are also so loud that even submerged submarines can hear them overhead.
The Tu-95 and Tu-142 survived the Cold War to see service in the Russian Air Force and Navy, with periodic reports of interceptions off Alaska, California, and Japan. Despite their age, both aircraft are being modernized, with Russia hoping to keep them in service until 2040.
The Ilyushin Il-38, known to NATO as the May, is a redesign of the Il-18, a civilian airliner built by the same company.
It entered service with the Soviet Navy in 1967 for maritime patrol and anti-submarine-warfare (ASW) missions, similar to the American Lockheed P-3 Orion.
The Il-38 is capable of flying as high as 32,000 feet, has a maximum range of about 5,000 miles, and a top speed of 404 mph.
With two internal weapons bays, it can carry up to 20,000 pounds of mines, depth charges, and even anti-ship missiles or torpedoes.
Since it is primarily tasked with ASW duty, its cargo is usually only sonobuoys — acoustic devices dropped into the water to listen for submarines.
Like the Tupolevs, the Il-38 is still in service in Russia. Since the Soviet days they have been known to fly low over NATO vessels.
India purchased a number of Il-38s, along with several Tu-142s, among other major Soviet-era weapons. India has retired its Tu-142s but still flies the Il-38.
Like its Tupolev brethren, the Il-38 is undergoing modernization, and it is occasionally intercepted in airspace around Alaska and Japan.
The most threatening Soviet aircraft with maritime missions were the bombers, especially the Tu-22M. Known to NATO as the Backfire, Tu-22Ms, especially the M3 variant, was and still are a major threat to NATO navies.
The Tu-22M3 has a cruising speed of 559 mph, a top speed of 1,429 mph, a ceiling of over 43,000 feet, and range of about 4,000 miles. Hardpoints and an internal weapons bay enable it to carry up to 53,000 pounds of ordnance.
During the Cold War, Tu-22M3s were expected to play a primary role against NATO surface vessels, especially aircraft carriers. They would be armed with as many as three nuclear or conventional Kh-15 missiles, or up to 10 Kh-22 missiles.
The bombing operations against carriers were to involve up to 100 Tu-22M3s and Tu-16s, with as many as 80 carrying missiles — some of which had nuclear warheads — while others carried other weaponry or acted as decoys.
Tu-22s saw combat as conventional bombers during the last year of the Soviet-Afghan War. They remained in Russian service after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. One was shot down by Georgian air defenses during the Russo-Georgian War in 2008.
They have often been used in patrol missions in Europe and Asia and saw combat once more during Russia's intervention in the Syrian Civil War.
Modernization efforts have given Tu-22M3s aerial-refueling capability, increasing their range. They have also given the bomber a new set of missiles, including the Kh-101, Kh-55, and Kh-32. A hypersonic missile, the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal, is also in development.
The Tu-22's partner aircraft, the Tu-16, is not in Russian service, but China operates a version known as the H-6 and has a naval variant, the H-6K, in a similar anti-ship role.
The Su-24 is an all-weather bomber and interceptor, with some variants in a reconnaissance role. Easily identifiable by its variable-sweep wings and side-by-side seating cockpit, the Su-24 was used by both the Soviet Air Force and Navy.
With a much smaller range and service ceiling —1,800 miles and 36,000 feet, respectively — than the larger Tupolevs, the Su-24 is meant to operate closer to shore. Nine hardpoints on the wings and under the fuselage allow it to carry over 17,000 pounds of ordnance.
For maritime missions, the Su-24 could carry three Kh-31 supersonic anti-ship missiles, which were also capable of locking onto enemy radar installations.
In Soviet and Russian service, Su-24s have conducted bombing operations in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria, with at least five lost to enemy action. Six other nations fly them as well.
Like their bomber and patrol counterparts, Su-24s remain on the frontline against NATO.
In April 2014, a single Su-24 flew 1,000 yards from and 500 feet above US Navy destroyer USS Donald Cook while it was in international waters in the Black Sea. A year later, two Su-24s flew just 550 yards from and 200 feet above the destroyer USS Ross in the same area.
In the Baltic Sea in 2016, two Su-24s circled the USS Donald Cook in a "simulated attack profile." Footage showed the jets just 100 feet above the destroyer during multiple passes. In 2017 and 2018, British, Belgian, and Dutch Navy ships were also buzzed by Su-24s.
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