August 18, 2015:
While Russia has cut flight time for its military aircraft in most of Russia in the last year, especially over the Pacific and Atlantic, it has increased flights over the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. For the first seven months of 2015 NATO warplanes had to go up 250 times to intercept Russian aircraft flying too close to NATO air space. That was a rate of Russian air activity not seen since the Cold War ended in 1991. Nearly half those interceptions were over the Baltic Sea where Russia insists NATO is making preparations for war. All this activity appears to be for domestic consumption because the pro-Russian “rebellion” in eastern Ukraine is stalled but the Western counterattack (sanctions, plunging oil prices and growing anti-Russian sentiment in the West) is not. As a practical matter these flights give aircrew valuable training the military could not afford before. On the down side there are growing complaints that many of these Russian military aircraft are turning off their transponders (which air traffic control systems use to identify and precisely locate aircraft in commercial air space) and not filing flight plans and then flying into controlled (by the air traffic control system) air space. Russia is ignoring these complaints, apparently allowing their aircrews to use their eyes and onboard radar to avoid collisions. This is also good combat training but not the sort of thing you would openly acknowledge.
The heavy use of “propaganda flights” over the Baltic and nearby areas began in early 2014 when Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine. Actually Russia had resumed long-distance maritime patrol flights over the Atlantic and Pacific in 2000, to demonstrate that Russia was still a world power. That demonstration has long-term costs that Russia now finds it cannot afford. An example of this is the effort to modernize its aging Tu-95MS bombers. Eight of these were modernized (mainly with new electronics, including communications, navigation and automated landing systems) in 2014 and ten more are supposed to undergo the process in 2015-16. This modernization effort has been going on since 2000 but because so many of these elderly Tu-95s are wearing out Russia only has 43 still in service in 2015. Plans to design and build a new heavy bomber have constantly been stalled by budget problems. That will become a critical problem once the Cold War era “heavies” all wear out.
The Russian program to put Cold War era heavy bombers back in service has been cut back but not stopped entirely. It part this is because sending these aircraft out for training flights in the North Sea, Atlantic and off the west coast of North America is great for Russian morale. This was what these aircraft did during the Cold War, when the mission was to be in the air, off the North American coast waiting for the order to be issued to launch their cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads. The Tu-95s can still do this but there are not enough of these aircraft available for “cruise missile duty” anymore and the propaganda flights are considered more important. But without the funds to do major refurbishment to develop and build a new aircraft, these flights have been cut back.
As with many smaller warplanes the problem with the Tu-95 is age. This aircraft, called "the Bear" in the West, entered service in 1956 with the current MS model appearing in 1981. Many existing Tu-95s are expected to remain in service, along with the Tu-142, into the 2030s. The Tu-142 was introduced in the 1970s as the maritime patrol version, but the Tu-95 was used for this duty as well. Over 500 Tu-95s were built, and it is the largest and fastest turboprop aircraft in service. In addition to the operational Tu-95MSs (originally designed as a missile carrying version) there are about a dozen Tu-142s. In addition there are dozens of Tu-95s in storage, which can be restored to service as either a bomber or a Tu-142. These stored aircraft are also being cannibalized for spare parts.
The 188 ton aircraft has a flight crew consisting of a pilot, copilot, engineer and radioman, and an unrefueled range of 15,000 kilometers. Max speed is 925 kilometers an hour, while cruising speed is 440 kilometers an hour. Originally designed as a nuclear bomber, the Tu-95MS version was modified to carry four or more large cruise (three ton) missiles. These aircraft are getting more expensive to maintain. Old age is particularly cruel and in the 1990s cracks were found in the wings of some very old Tu-95s. Those aircraft were scrapped and all other carefully examined. Like all old aircraft, Tu-95/142s undergo constant inspection for age related problems.
The propaganda flights using smaller warplanes have increased in the West because less air time is required to annoy NATO nations. That means less wear and tear on the elderly Russian aircraft and less money needed to keep them flyable.