TAKING STOCK OF THE TU-95 BEAR
George A. Haloulakos, CFA, is a university instructor, author and entrepreneur. His published works utilize aviation as a teaching tool for Finance, Game Theory, History and Strategy.
Since the late 1950s, the Tupolev TU-95 Bear has remained an iconic reminder of the Cold War while projecting a formidable if not imposing presence in the skies. It is both prudent and wise to study the ways of one’s adversary, particularly when it concerns deployment of a versatile, long-serving capital asset. As such, the Bear warrants a fundamental reappraisal aimed at understanding its strategic and economic value in an era where costs associated with military capital assets have increased exponentially along with technology advancements. Economy and defense are the dual tracking themes of this research article while utilizing Finance and Game Theory as the methods to provide a fundamental reappraisal of the TU-95 Bear.
NOTE: This research article is based on the author’s longtime experience as a Special Situations Analyst (“Buy” side and “Sell” side), subject expert in Finance and later as a published author on military aviation. As such, insights offered here are largely based on primary research by the author supplemented by other authoritative sources listed in the text of this article.
This article is organized as follows: First, we present our observations on the strategic and historic value of the TU-95 Bear. Second, is our analysis of the TU-95 Bear as a capital project deployed as a national defense asset by the adversary. Finally, we make the case that while its eerie retro style resembles the World War II era Boeing B-29 Superfortress, the Tupolev TU-95 Bear is a significant aircraft to be seriously reckoned with in the 21st century.
(Note: All photographs shown in this article are from the public domain.)
OBSERVATIONS ON TOTAL STRATEGIC VALUE
The legacy of the TU-95 Bear is a classic design bomber aircraft that transcends time while being an example of economy and versatility.
> Legacy – It all starts with the airframe design. The TU-95 Bear is an exemplary descendant of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress! The irony of the tubular Superfortress design as a TU-95 Bear is a tribute by the adversary to Boeing’s template for elegant simplicity, long-range travel and loitering capabilities. This was “opportunistically” acquired by the adversary at the end of World War II to gain advantage through reverse engineering. The confiscated B-29 aircraft that would eventually be the basis for the TU-95 generated enormous strategic and economic benefits for the adversary.
> Economy — The key factor in making the TU-95 economical is the extended useful life of the airframe. The longer an asset is in active use, the higher its Return on Investment. Given the enormous costs associated with designing, developing and producing an airframe, a longer useful life means costs can be spread over a longer time period. The long economic life of this aircraft compared to other heavy airborne platforms is due to a combination of its size or capacity, structure and its design that has made the TU-95 a fungible asset [i.e., transferable from one generation to the next]. Due to its utilitarian structural design the TU-95 was more conducive to various upgrades along with producing new variants of the Bear in the ensuing decades versus other bombers that had entered service at the same time.
Versatility – Originally designed to drop free-falling nuclear weapons, the TU-95 Bear was suitable for modification to different missions. Since its deployment in 1956, the Bear has been modifed to perform a wide variety of roles such as maritime patrol, antisubmarine warfare, deployment of cruise missiles, airborne surveillance, electronic warfare and a civilian airliner variant. Approximately 500+ units were built from 1952-1994. As of this writing, the Russian Air Force has approximately 50 Bears on readiness status with 10 in reserve, for a total of 60 aircraft available. These aircraft are from production runs in the early 1990s and are planned to remain in active service until 2040.
ANALYSIS USING FINANCE AND GAME THEORY
Finance explains how capital is employed to create added-value and is the language of business. Game Theory is the analysis of strategy and tactics in situations of conflict, competition or cooperation in which participants are faced with choices of action by which they gain or lose depending upon what others choose to do or not to do. Both Finance and Game Theory when used together provide the basis for understanding how the TU-95 Bear – a turboprop aircraft introduced in the 1950s – remains a viable capital asset fulfilling a variety of roles well into the 21st century.
> The Backstory on the Design and Development of the TU-95
In the venue of Finance, we often find that creation of added-value occurs by capitalizing on opportunities as well as making the most efficient use of resources at hand. This certainly holds true for the origin of the TU-95, which owed much to the development of its predecessors: the TU-85, a scaled up version of the TU-4 Bull. It is here where the connection to the Boeing B-29 Superfortress comes into play because the TU-4 Bull was an unlicensed copy of the B-29. During the latter part of World War II (1944-1945), four American B-29s made emergency landings in Soviet territory following bombing raids in Japan and Japanese Manchuria. While the American air crews were eventually released, the B-29s were confiscated and never returned to the USA despite repeated requests. The Soviets reverse engineered the B-29 and used it as the template for the TU-4 Bull which led to the eventual development of the TU-95. In sum, the B-29 was the missing link for the Soviets to create a heavy bomber.
[Sources: (1) “”TU-4 Bull”.” Menino Aviation. February 18, 2009. (2) Air Power Australia [ausairpower.net]. (3) “Tupolev TU-95 (Bear).” Strategic Reconnaissance/Heavy Bomber Aircraft (1956) [militaryfactory.com]. ]
> Imitation: The Sincerest Form of Flattery
With the Boeing B-29 as the template for the TU-4 and TU-85, the TU-95 was upgraded to have features lacking in its predecessors – intercontinental range along with greater payload. While still resembling the B-29, the TU-95 Bear had some notable points of difference with its propulsion and wing design that has enabled it to remain the only prop-powered strategic bomber still in operation. Tupolev selected turboprops instead of underpowered piston or fuel-guzzling (and therefore shorter-range) jet systems. Four eight-bladed contrarotating propellers – with blade tips moving supersonically and therefore extremely loud – provided both power and long-range. The wings were swept at a distinctive 35-degree angle thereby giving the classic tubular airframe a sleeker appearance. With tricycle landing gear that retracts backward, the Bear’s maximum speed is 516 miles per hour (MPH) with cruise speed of 457 MPH, service ceiling of 45,000 feet and range (with maximum fuel) of 9,321 miles. Crew (typical) of six: pilot, copilot, flight engineer, communications system operator, navigator, tail gunner.
[Sources: (1) “Airpower Classics – TU-95/142 Bear.” AIR FORCE Magazine. Page 84. December 2014. (2) Aviastar.org (3) Flugzeuginfo.net – Aircraft Encyclopedia (4) Combat Aircraft since 1945. By Stewart Wilson. Fyshwick, Australia: Aerospace Publications, 2000. ]
In its research profile on strategic bomber aircraft, Air Power Australia [ausairpower.net] concluded that the “TU-95 is without a doubt the most outstanding descendant of the Boeing B-29” by highlighting how the first production variant of the Bear displayed its B-29 heritage with the following noteworthy features:
- Pressurized forward and aft compartments
- Internal 14 meter long bomb bay
- A pair of remote controlled 23 mm gun babettes and associated PS-48 mm optical sights
- Tail gunner’s station
Air Power Australia also observed that the Bear was not only a descendant of the B-29 but a fusion of aeronautical design advancements in the early years of the Cold War: “TU-95 was a direct evolution of the 1940s Tupolev TU-4 Bull, a cloned late build B-29 leveraging experience gained from design of its swept wing TU-16 Badger and straight wing piston powered TU-85, intended to match the Convair B-36 Peacemaker.”
The Finance implications are that the adversary not only reverse engineered a proven capital asset for its own purposes, but saved itself both money and time needed to develop such an aircraft. How much did the adversary save? The contract value for the B-29 project was $3 billion (US dollars) that started in 1940 with a production run of 3,970 units from 1943-1946. The financial return from these “savings” is explained in the ensuing section.
[Source: Post World War II Bombers, 1945-1973; page 486. By Marcelle Size Knaack. Washington, DC. Office of Air Force History. 1988]
> The Lower the Cost of an Asset, the Greater its Potential Return
While a low purchase price for a capital asset does not assure a successful investment, too high a price guarantees failure. Having acquired several late model B-29s enabled the adversary to replicate and improve upon a pioneering aircraft but without the technical and financial hurdles of starting from scratch. The immediate economic benefit of realizing enormous savings by avoiding large start-up and development costs was to proportionately devote more financial and human capital to refining its turboprops, swept wing design and multiple variants while still using the same fuselage design. From the early 1950s to the early 1990s, Tupelov developed and produced a total of twenty-two variants of the TU-95 (including derivatives). Among the variants were two prototypes and two test/experimental airframes. The four derivatives were the TU-114 Cleat (airliner), TU-116 (interim passenger hauler for the TU-114 program), TU-126 (Airborne Warning and Control Systems: AWACS) and the TU-142 (Maritime Reconnaissance and Antisubmarine Warfare).
[Sources: (1) “Tupolev TU-95 (Bear).” Strategic Reconnaissance/Heavy Bomber Aircraft (1956) [militaryfactory.com] (2) The Observer’s Book of Aircraft. Compiled by William Green. With silhouettes by Dennis Punnett. Frederick Warne & Co. New York. 1965. ]
In Finance it is axiomatic that the longer a capital asset (such as an airframe) is in use, the greater its Return on Investment (ROI). Moreover if that airframe / capital asset design can be reconfigured for different applications, this provides a further boost in ROI. By not having to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, the adversary was able to deploy the TU-95 as a core asset in its arsenal while keeping it relevant with new, improved variants in the years and decades following its introduction. More than sixty years after its inaugural flight, the Bear, once a Cold War icon, has outlived the Soviet Union while living on as a bomber and missile carrier in the Russian arsenal. The public domain is replete with photographs of multiple generations of American and European jet fighters engaged with interception of Bear bombers as they have probed and surveyed global coastlines while seeking to maintain initiative. The passage of time conveyed in such photographs is reflected in the outward changes of the interceptor jet aircraft in contrast to the steady, ubiquitous Bear. While the TU-95 appears antiquated versus the multiple generations of its supersonic high-tech pursuers, it has remained an effective and cost efficient cruise missile carrier and targeting platform as well as a valuable Intelligence – Surveillance & Reconnaissance vehicle. High performance jet interceptors have shorter service lives than strategic bomber aircraft while requiring substantial costs for maintenance. The significance of this from a Finance perspective is self-evident: the ongoing threat of the Bear in its various roles necessitates ever increasing defense expenditures to develop and maintain new generation interceptors as a countermove against the adversary. But from a Game Theory perspective, there are other equally important ramifications.
> Projecting Strength With Steadiness, Efficiency and Endurance
The TU-95 Bear has been a resilient capital asset because of its adaptability to operate on long-range missions in adverse conditions. Its turboprop engines operate more efficiently in turbulence under 38,000 feet altitude. Keep in mind that during the late 1950s to the mid 1970s, if the Bear’s Cold War mission was to fly a very long distance over the Polar region to strike North American targets (USA and Canada) it would be flying against the westerly stream. As noted earlier, the Bear’s maximum speed is 516 MPH and cruise speed of 457 MPH. Based on modern turboprop efficiency, the best efficiency is approximately 375 MPH. In order to maximize its range in the midst of covering great distances and harsh weather, it makes sense for the TU-95 Bear to operate at 72% – 75% of maximum power.
[Sources: (1) “Propulsive Efficiency Comparison for Various Gas Turbine Configurations.” Rolls-Royce 1992 via MIT Data and reconfigured by Marc Lacoste. (2) Kelly Scott, CISA (Certified Information Systems Auditor), EA (Enrolled Agent), instrument rated pilot and aviation historian.]
The Bear’s original mission was for delivering free-fall nuclear bombs, but later was modified to accommodate advancements for cruise missile carriage, maritime patrol, airborne surveillance and electronic warfare. With such modifications, this meant that while the Bear still had to cover extensive range, it did not require penetration into adversarial airspace but rather approach the perimeter! From a Game Theory perspective (and using Chess as our teaching tool), these upgrades enabled the Bear to continue to project an aggressive if not threatening presence while maintaining offensive initiative (i.e., forcing its opponent to use its resources from a defensive posture). There have been a very large number of missions in which TU-95 Bears have flown into US, Canadian and European air defense zones, causing jet interceptors to scramble as a precautionary defense measure.
While there is no question that each generation of American and European jet interceptors have been more than capable of shooting down the Bear – and with the latest stealth fighters now able to do so out of visible range of the adversary – the continued use of the older technology Bear versus highly advanced interceptors is both psychological as well as practical. On the practical side, the Bear is now able to launch cruise missiles from great stand-off range without having to approach the perimeter or air defense zone in the event of a shooting war. Such a mission does not require supersonic speed or stealth nor does it require face-to-face combat, but loitering capability plus capacity. In this regard, the Bear is more than up to the task of doing so. On the psychological front, gamesmanship now comes into play. The TU-95 Bear’s loitering not only helps retain initiative but one can make the case that such ongoing tactics of constantly surveying and probing the defensive perimeter can “wear out” the high-performing BUT high-maintenance jet interceptors that have inherently shorter service lives but are forced to scramble each time the Bear makes a fly-by approach.
> Lessons Learned From the Bear
Lesson #1: Capital Assets that are fungible ( i.e., transferable from one generation to the next) have strong probability of earning a high Return on Investment (ROI). The high ROI is accomplished with the asset having a long active service life plus an additional boost when the basic design can be reconfigured into multiple variants, thereby deriving enormous savings from not having to start from scratch with design and development. The utilitarian design of the TU-95 Bear – having descended from the Boeing B-29 – has enabled the Bear to remain a capable front-line aircraft because of its durability plus ease of reconfiguration for various mission requirements.
Lesson #2: Strive to seize and/or maintain the initiative thereby forcing the action and directing the flow of play. Ignoring or forsaking the initiative increases rather than decreases risk as the adversary is likely to view restraint as a weakness to be exploited. While the TU-95 Bear lacks the supersonic speed and stealth of present day interceptors, its long-range, endurance and loitering capability plus lower operating/maintenance costs make it an ongoing credible threat. Ceding the initiative by not keeping track of the Bear’s global fly-by missions because of its so-called antiquated appearance, ignores its assortment of very large payloads that now includes long-range air-launched cruise missiles with drone capabilities!
Lesson #3: Mastery of fundamentals – including various permutations (i.e., ordered combinations) on how to upgrade and deploy a versatile capital asset – enables the adversary to transform something old and familiar into something new and improved. In a rather ironic tip of the hat to the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, this transformative World War II aircraft became the basic template for the TU-95 Bear as the adversary was able to leverage the unique features from the Superfortress into an efficient, durable and ultimately adaptable airframe. The Bear’s improvements versus the B-29 — namely its unique turboprops plus its sweptback wings and longer range – plus the initiative to incorporate advancements in missiles, surveillance and electronic warfare have enabled it to evolve from a Cold War icon into a versatile, operational 21st century airborne weapons platform.
CLOSING THOUGHTS OR PUTTING IT ALL IN PERSPECTIVE
This research article is part of a continuing series in which we evaluate iconic military aircraft through the prism of Finance and Game Theory. In studying the history of such aircraft, we are keenly aware of the exponential rise in costs and technical difficulties associated with such capital assets. This has been particularly evident since the mid-1960s. During that era, the operational challenges and escalating financial costs associated with the roll-out of the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark became a recurring theme in varying degrees with each new generation aircraft in the ensuing decades. In that same period, it was also observed that the North American XB-70 Valkyrie – a supersonic, high-tech mega-million airborne platform – could easily be shot down by a relatively low-cost missile fired by the adversary. The unfavorable risk/reward profile for such an aircraft in combat has been cited as a major reason for the XB-70 Valkyrie not being mass-produced for deployment by the US Air Force.
In this context, the long-term viability of a capital asset like the adversary’s TU-95 Bear makes a great deal more financial sense for ongoing national defense purposes. Integrating advances in rocketry associated with air-launched cruise missiles and electronic warfare into the Bear offers not only a more favorable risk/reward profile but greater economic returns by extending the useful life of the airframe and its design. In the case of the TU-95 Bears currently in service, while the airframe design is the same that began flying in the 1950s, they are not the same units from that era. As noted earlier in this article, the TU-95 Bears currently flying were produced in the early 1990s and are planned to remain in service until 2040. This is a noteworthy fact lest the reader draw an incorrect conclusion that the adversary is using a 1950s built aircraft! Similarly on our side, the Boeing B-52H Stratofortress flown by the US Air Force is a variant whose production ended in 1962, BUT that same airframe has been rebuilt and re-engineered several times. This capital rebuild strategy has enabled the US Air Force to utilize the B-52 in a similar manner the adversary has done with the TU-95 Bear. In both cases, what is old has been made new and what seems new is actually old!
This is not to say that exotic aircraft like the aforementioned XB-70 Valkyrie should not be developed, but perhaps their role is more along the lines of a technology driver. If transcendent capability is achieved like with the Northrop B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, then such specialty aircraft can be integrated into a mixed force, thereby optimizing the overall risk/reward profile for that portfolio of various purpose-built aircraft. In its own way, the resilience of the TU-95 Bear is an example of balancing economy and defense. Finally, as a descendant of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, the Tupelov TU-95 Bear is an ironic testimony to that American pioneering World War II aircraft that left a lasting contribution in aviation history.