Intercepting the Bear

Growing up in Australia during the 1970’s and 80’s I was always intrigued in hearing about the “Red Menace” of Communism. I was a kid and a teenager during the Cold War but felt far removed from any threat living in the southern part of Australia. The Vietnam War was long over, Europe was far away and China was not the superpower it is today. In reality I read years later that Soviet submarines were often detected in our waters, plus Soviet “fishing trawlers” were out there that were actually spy ships. In return Australian submarines would spy on the fleets of the Soviet and Chinese Navy in the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean and South China Sea from 1978 to 1992 (these secret missions came to an end when one of our Oberon class submarines specially equipped with intelligence gathering equipment got caught in a fishing net and had to surface in the middle of a fleet to be cut free!). Australia was most likely also targeted by Soviet nuclear missiles as we had numerous US spy bases located within our borders.

Oberon Submarine
HMAS Onslow – Royal Australian Navy Oberon Class Submarine

The one thing that always fascinated me during that period was seeing photos in books and magazines of  relatively tiny North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and US fighter aircraft intercepting massive Soviet bombers and reconnaissance aircraft over the North Sea, the Baltic, the Pacific Ocean or the Bering Sea near Alaska. Back then NATO included Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, UK, USA and West Germany (it has greatly expanded today to include former Eastern Bloc enemies).

Cold War Europe

From the 1950’s right through to the fall of the USSR and Communism in Eastern Europe in 1991 the Soviets sent aircraft to probe and spy on the air defences of NATO nations and the US Pacific naval fleet. This lead to NATO forces building high-speed aircraft (Mach 2+) with a rapid rate of climb to take off and quickly intercept and escort the Soviet aircraft out of their airspace in as “friendly” a manner as possible (classic interceptors included the English Electric Lightning, Convair F-106 Delta Dart, Grumman F-14 Tomcat, Lockheed F-104 Starfighter and the Panavia Tornado F.3). Sometimes these interceptions were done at incredibly close ranges so the pilots could check each other out and take intelligence photos. This must have led to some very hair-raising and amusing moments on both sides. I remember reading stories of NATO pilots holding up symbols of the “Free West” to their Soviet counterparts such as Playboy magazines!

RAF English Electric Lightning F1. Introduced December 1959 (he last variant retired in 1988) the Lightning was the only British designed and built fighter capable of flying at Mach 2
RAF English Electric Lightning F1. Introduced December 1959 (the last variant retired in 1988) the Lightning was the only British designed and built fighter capable of flying at Mach 2 (Photo Source: RAF)

These Soviet incursion flights were all in preparation for a possible war that hung over the world following World War Two. Of course as history has shown it was a Cold War and luckily never went “hot”. So Communism fell and the Cold War ended. This spelt the end of these incursion flights, but then around 15 years later the economic fortunes of Russia began to rise on the back of natural resources, along with a reestablished influence over the world. This resurgence suddenly lead to the appearance of the Russian aircraft on incursion flights once again! Starting in around 2006 Russian electronic intelligence (ELINT), strategic bombers and reconnaissance aircraft started to probe the air defences of the UK and Northern Europe. They say history tends to repeat itself and one thing is certain the Russian bear is back!

The interesting thing with these intercepts is that throughout the entire period from the 1950’s to today one predominate aircraft has been involved in most of them. The Tupolev Tu-95 Bear a huge 4 turbo prop engined strategic bomber / airborne surveillance aircraft that first flew in 1952 and is still in service with the Russian Air Force today. The Tu-95 can be armed with various air-to-surface missiles including nuclear weapons.

Tupolev Tu-95 Bear
Tupolev Tu-95 Bear
Tu-95 23mm cannon tail turret. Guns up is a friendly gesture (the top photo was taken by the US Navy in 1987 - often a Russian crewman would be in the window nacelle taking a photo back)
Tu-95 23mm cannon tail turret. Guns up is a friendly gesture. The top photo was taken by the US Navy in 1987 – often a Russian crewman would be in the window nacelle taking a photo back.

Following are a collection of photos of interceptions of Soviet and Russian aircraft over the past 50 years or so by NATO and US aircraft. They have certainly kept NATO pilots (and their allies) busy for decades!

1960’s

Tupolev Tu-95 Bear
Clockwise left to right: Tupolev Tu-95 Bear and USMC McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, RAF Lightings & Myasishchev M-4 Bison, Tu-95 & RAF Lightning, Tu-94 & US Navy Phantoms over USS Kitty Hawk, Myasishchev M-4 Bison & RAF Lightning, Tu-95 & US NavyVought F-8 Crusader, US Navy F-4’s & Tupolev Tu-16 Badger over USS Kitty Hawk, US Navy McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawk & Beriev BE-6 Madge and USAF Convair F-102 Delta Dagger & Tu-95

1970’s

Tupolev Tu-95 Bear
Clockwise left to right: Tupolev Tu-95 Bear & US Navy McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom, US Navy Grumman F-14 Tomcat & Tupolev Tu-16 Badger, Royal Navy F-4 & Tu-95, US Navy F-14’s & Tu-95, US Navy Vought F-8 Crusader & Tu-95, US Navy F-4’s & Tu-95, US Navy F-14 & Tu-95, US Navy F-4’s & Tu-95, RAF F-4 & Tu-95, US Navy F-4’s & Tu-95 and US Navy F-14 & Tu-95
Tupolev Tu-95 Bear
Clockwise left to right: Tupolev Tu-95 Bear & RAF Lightning, US Navy McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawk & Tupolev Tu-16 Badger, Tu-16 & US Navy McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, TU-95 & USAF F-4, USAF Convair F-102 Delta Daggers & Tu-95, Tu-95 & USAF F-4’s, Norwegian Lockheed F-104 Starfighter & Tu-16, US Navy Grumman A-6 Intruder & Tu-16 and US Navy Grumman F-14 Tomcat & Tu-95
Tupolev Tu-95 Bear
Clockwise left to right: Tupolev Tu-126 Moss & US Navy A-4 Skyhawk, Tupolev Tu-95 Bear & US Navy McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, USAF Convair F-106 Delta Dart & Tu-95, Tu-95 & Luftwaffe F-4, USMC McDonnell Douglas AV-8A Harrier & Tu-95, RAF Lightning & Tu-95, US Navy F-4 & Ilyushin Il-38 May and US Navy Grumman A-6 Intruder & Tu-95

 1980’s

Tupolev Tu-95 Bear
Clockwise left to right: Tupolev Tu-95 Bear & US Navy Vought A-7 Corsair II, Tu-95 & Dutch General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, Tu-95 & USAF McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, Tu-95 & US Navy Grumman F-14 Tomcat, Tu-95 & USAF Convair F-106 Delta Dart, Tu-95 & US Navy F-14, Tu-95 & US Navy F-14 and Canadian McDonnell Douglas CF-101 Voodoo & Tu-95
Tupolev Tu-95 Bear
Clockwise left to right: Tupolev Tu-95 Bear & US Navy Grumman F-14 Tomcats, Ilyushin Il-38 May & US Navy F-14, USAF McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle & Tu-95, US Navy McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornets & Tu-95, Il-38 May, US Navy Grumman A-6 Intruder & F/A-18, TU-95 & USAF Convar F-106 Delta Dart, Tu-95 & USAF F-106 and Ilyushin Il-76 & US Navy F-14
Tupolev Tu-95 Bear
Clockwise left to right: US Army Bell AH-1 Cobra & Czech Mil Mi-24 Hind, US Navy Grumman F-14 Tomcat & Antonov An-12 Cub, Tupolev Tu-16 Badger & US Navy F-14, Tu-16 & USAF McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, Tu-16 & USMC McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, US Navy F-14 & Tu-95, Tu-95 & USAF F-4 and South Korean F-4 & Ilyushin Il-38 May (not NATO but looks cool)
Tupolev Tu-95 Bear
Clockwise left to right: Tupolev Tu-95 Bear’s & US Navy Grumman F-14 Tomcats, Tu-95 & USAF McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagles, Tu-95 & US Navy Lockheed P-3 Orion, RAF Vickers VC-10 & Tu-95, Myasishchev M-4 Bison & Norwegian General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, Tupolev Tu-16 Badger & Italian Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, Tu-16 & & USAF F-15, Tu-16 & Italian F-104, US Navy F-14 & Tupolev Tu-22M Backfire, Norwegian F-16 & Tu-22M and US Navy F-14 & Tu-95
Tupolev Tu-95 Bear
Clockwise left to right: US Navy Grumman F-14 Tomcat & Ilyushin Il-38 May, Tupolev Tu-16 Badgers & US Navy F-14, Tupolev Tu-95 Bear & US Navy F-14, Tu-95, US Navy F-14 & USAF McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, Norwegian General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon & Tupolev Tu-22M Backfire, US Navy F-14 & Tu-95, Tu-22M & US Navy F-14, Antonov An-22 Cock & Italian Lockheed F-104 Starfighter and RAF Sepecat Jaguar & Il-38

2000’s

The Bear is back!

Tupolev Tu-95 Bear
Clockwise left to right: Canadian McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet & Tupolev Tu-95 Bear, Canadian F/A-18 & Tu-95, USAF McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle & Tu-95, USAF Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor & Tu-95, USAF F-22 & Tu-95, USAF F-15 & Tu-95, Norwegian General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon & Tu-95 and Tu-95 & Norwegian F-16
Tupolev Tu-95 Bear
Clockwise left to right: Tupolev Tu-95 Bear & RAF Eurofighter Typhoon, Lufwaffe Typhoon & Antonov An-72, USAF Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor & Tu-95, RAF Panavia Tornado F.3, Eurofighter & Tu-95, USAF McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle & Tu-95, RAF Tornado & Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack, Tu-95 & RAF Tornado, Tu-95 & RAF Tornados, Tu-95 & Netherlands General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon and Tu-95 & US Navy McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet
Tupolev Tu-95 Bear
Clockwise left to right: Antonov Il-76 Mainstay & Luftwaffe Eurofighter Typhoon, French Dassault-Breguet Mirage 2000 & Ilyushin Il-20 Coot, Il-20, French Mirage 2000 & Swedish Jas-39 Gripen, Tu-95 & French Mirage 2000, Tu-95 & RAF Eurofighter, Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack & Norwegian General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, Tu-95 & Norwegian F-16, RAF Eurofighter & Tu-95 and RAF Tornado & Tu-160

In 2004 the Baltic States joined NATO. Since then NATO nations have conducted a Baltic Air Policing mission deploying fighter aircraft in a defensive operation to monitor NATO airspace in the Baltic Sea. As such this has resulted in many intercepts of Russian aircraft when they have been on “training” missions.

Czech AF Saab Gripen intercepts a Russian Ilyushin Il-20 Coot (2011) and a French AF Mirage F-1 intercepts a Russian Tupolev Tu-22M Backfire and Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker over the Baltic (2013)
Czech AF Saab Gripen intercepts a Russian Ilyushin Il-20 Coot (2011) and a French AF Mirage F-1 intercepts a Russian Tupolev Tu-22M Backfire and Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker over the Baltic (2013)
French Airforce Mirage F-1 intercepts a Russian Tu-22M Backfire, Suhkoi Su-27 Flanker and Ilyushin Il-20 Coot (2013) and a Mirage 2000 intercepts an Il-20 over the Baltic (2011)
French Airforce Mirage F-1 intercepts a Russian Tu-22M Backfire, Suhkoi Su-27 Flanker and Ilyushin Il-20 Coot (2013) and a Mirage 2000 intercepts an Il-20 over the Baltic (2011)
On June 17th 2014 RAF Eurofighter Typhoons of No.3 Squadron intercepted a number of Russian aircraft on a "training" mission over the Baltic including these Sukhoi Su-27 Flankers and Antonov An-26 Curl
On June 17th 2014 RAF Eurofighter Typhoons of No.3 Squadron intercepted a number of Russian aircraft on a “training” mission over the Baltic including these Sukhoi Su-27 Flankers and Antonov An-26 Curl

As for me, well I have only ever seen one Tupolev Tu-95 Bear. That was at the Russian Air Force Museum in Monino near Moscow in 2007. Would love to see one in the air some day!

Tupolev TU-95 Bear Monino Russian Airforce Museum
The Tu-95 at Monino

 

UPDATE APRIL 2014

The Bear just keeps on going on! 2 Russian Tupolev Tu-95 Bear H aircraft were detected approaching the NATO Air Policing Area north of Scotland to conduct a surveillance mission on April 23rd, 2014. Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon fighters from Number 6 Squadron were scrambled from RAF Leuchars (they are part of the RAF Typhoon Quick Reaction Alert force) to intercept the Bears and keep them out of UK airspace. The pilots of the Typhoons took the following photos whilst escorting the Russians out of the area. They then handed them over to F-16’s flown by the Danish Air Force to escort further north (F-16’s from the Netherlands Air Force were also scrambled to intercept the Tu-95’s). It should be said the Russians remained in international airspace throughout this process.

2 x Russian Tupolev Tu-95 Bear H's intercepted by RAF Eurofighter Typhoons north of Scotland April 23rd, 2014
2 x Russian Tupolev Tu-95 Bear H’s intercepted by RAF Eurofighter Typhoons north of Scotland April 23rd, 2014 (Photo Source: UK Ministry of Defence)

The UK Ministry of Defence quoted RAF Number 6 Squadron Typhoon pilot Flight Lieutenant Gary Montgomery as saying:

Typhoon Quick Reaction Alert stands ready to scramble at a moments notice, 24/7, all year long, to maintain the integrity of UK airspace.”

Intercepting Russian Bear aircraft is a routine occurrence for us, it’s what we do to maintain UK Sovereign airspace.”

2014_04_23 Tu-95 Russia Scotland RAF Typhoon Intercept 3
2 x Russian Tupolev Tu-95 Bear H’s intercepted by RAF Eurofighter Typhoons north of Scotland April 23rd, 2014 (Photo Source: UK Ministry of Defence)

While these Russian incursions are nothing new, this flight was a little unusual. Yes it happened while political tensions run high in Europe, but the unique thing about this incursion is that there are 2 Bears together, If you look back at the vast collection of photos I have put together in this blog, these types of intercepts are nearly always of single aircraft. The Russians never fail to surprise!

2 x Russian Tupolev Tu-95 Bear H’s intercepted by RAF Eurofighter Typhoons north of Scotland April 23rd, 2014 (Photo Source: RAF)
2 x Russian Tupolev Tu-95 Bear H’s intercepted by RAF Eurofighter Typhoons north of Scotland April 23rd, 2014 (Photo Source: UK Ministry of Defence)

Once the Bears left Danish airspace the RAF Typhoons (who had been refueled by an RAF Voyager tanker) continued to monitor their movements until they were last seen heading north towards Norwegian airspace and back to their base on the Kola Peninsula in northern Russia (the Norwegian Air Force decided against intercepting them as they had already been identified). For over 60 years now the Tupolev Tu-95 Bear has been a threat. No doubt the Russian Bear will return again soon!

 

UPDATE DECEMBER 2014

The Russian Air Force has been intercepted on a regular basis during their training missions in 2014 by Royal Norwegian Air Force General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters off the coast of Norway. The Norwegian Ministry of Defense reported that Norwegian F-16s were scrambled to intercept Russian aircraft 41 times in 2013 and 43 times as of December 1st, 2014, compared to only 16 occasions in 2005. NATO announced that interceptions by NATO aircraft of Russian aircraft had tripled in 2014 around Europe with a significant increase in the Baltic region in particular.

Norwegian F-16's intercept a Russian Tu-95 Bear and Sukhoi Su-34 Fullback in October 2014
Norwegian F-16’s intercept a Russian Tu-95 Bear and Sukhoi Su-34 Fullback in October 2014 (Photo Source: Norwegian Air Force)
Top: Royal Netherlands AF F-16's intercept a Russian Tu-95 Bear on April 23rd, 2014.
Top: Royal Netherlands AF F-16’s intercept a Russian Tu-95 Bear on April 23rd, 2014.
Bottom: Portuguese Air Force F-16 intercepts a Russian Tu-95 Bear on October 31st, 2014 (Photos sourced from the respective Air Forces)
Top: An RAF Eurofighter Typhoon in pursuit of a Russian Tu-95 October 29th, 2014
Top: An RAF Eurofighter Typhoon in pursuit of a Russian Tu-95 October 29th, 2014
Bottom: Norwegian Air Force F-16 tails a Russian Ilyushin Il-20 Coot ELINT aircraft December 2014 (Photos sourced from the respective air forces)

 

UPDATE FEBRUARY 2015

As we all know Russian Bear aircraft have continued to probe western air defences around Europe, the UK specifically and North America mainly off Alaska. Most recently though on February 18th, 2015 the Russian Defence Ministry TV channel released a video of RAF Eurofighter Typhoon and Armée de l’Air (French AF) Dassault Mirage 2000 fighters (a Mirage 2000 can be seen at the 0:53 second mark) shadowing a Tu-95 strategic bomber from the Bear itself! A unique perspective and a good view of the huge contra-rotating propellers of the Tu-95 too.

The video is believed to be an interception conducted by NATO fighters from the RAFArmée de l’Air (French AF) and the Royal Norwegian Air Force (F-16’s) at various stages during the flight on January 29th, 2015 in the NATO Baltic Air Policing zone. On that date the two Tu-95 aircraft that were intercepted were escorted by Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-31 Foxhound long-range interceptors and were refueled twice by Ilyushin Il-78 Midas tankers. The Russian bombers took off from Engels airbase and their flight lasted 19 hours.

Top: A Russian Ilyushin Il-78 Midas tanker refuels a Tu-95 Bear in December 2014 (Royal Norwegian Air Force photo),
Top: A Russian Ilyushin Il-78 Midas tanker refuels a Tu-95 Bear in December 2014 (Royal Norwegian Air Force photo),
Bottom: An RAF Eurofighter Typhoon gets up close with a Tu-95 Bear (Russian Ministry of Defence photo)

The video was released by the Russian military following a similar interception by RAF Eurofighter Typhoon fighters off the coast of Cornwall, UK on February 18th, 2015 (the Russians were in international airspace). In this incident the RAF aircraft escorted the Russian Tu-95’s as they flew south before turning back and flying north along the Irish coast and away from the area.

Typhoon takes off from RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire at 4.30pm on Wednesday, shortly before the Russian planes were intercepted
RAF Eurofighter Typhoon takes off from RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire shortly before the Russian planes were intercepted on February 18th, 2015 (Photo Source: Daily Mail UK)
An interesting summary of recent Russian incursions around the UK 2015 Tu-95 Bear
An interesting summary of recent Russian incursions around the UK (Infographic Source: Daily Mail UK February 19th, 2015)
A Russian Tu-95 Bear bomber photographed from an RAF fighter off the UK coast in October 2014
A Russian Tu-95 Bear bomber photographed from an RAF fighter off the UK coast in October 2014 (Photo Source: UK Ministry of Defence)
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12 thoughts on “Intercepting the Bear

  1. Hi Deano,

    Have just found this blog, it’s great, with really interesting information.

    Do you happen to have the photo (or know where it is) of the Bear with the crewman in the rear holding up a can of Coke (I think)? I remember seeing it in one of my fathers Aircraft Illustrated magazines from either 70’s or 80’s. Was a great photo.

    Anyway keep up the great work.

    Rich
    (Sydney)

    Like

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