On March 7 a pair of Tupolev Tu-142 “Bears” set out on a training mission into the North Atlantic. Lockheed Martin F-35As of the Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF, Luftforsvaret) were involved in the NATO shadowing activities, believed to be the first time that the Lightning II has undertaken such operations.
While this made the event noteworthy at a time when Russian long-range aircraft are increasingly being intercepted by NATO fighters, the operation also provided the shadowing aircraft with a close-up view of the rare Tu-142MRM, the latest version of the “Bear-J” submarine communications aircraft.
Assigned to the Russian navy’s Northern Fleet, the two Bears are based with the 403rd OSAP (independent composite aviation regiment) at Kipelovo-Fedotovo. According to the Russian ministry of defense, the aircraft flew over a distance of 10,000 km and were airborne for more than 13 hours, during which the crews remained inside international airspace and “successfully conducted training to solve problems in the far sea zone.” They were escorted over the initial part of their journey by Mikoyan MiG-31 “Foxhound” fighters, most likely from the 98th OSAP at Monchegorsk, and refueled from an Ilyushin Il-78M “Midas” tanker. The Russian MoD subsequently released a video in its Russian-language news channel showing footage recorded onboard one of the Tu-142s.
As is commonplace for North Atlantic flights by Northern Fleet aircraft, they were initially intercepted and identified as they rounded the North Cape by RNoAF F-16AM fighters of 331 Skvadron flying from the base at Bodø, which is north of the Arctic Circle. Subsequently, the task of shadowing them was handed over to a pair of 332 Skvadron F-35As flying from Ørland. As the Bears proceeded further into the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap, the task of escorting them was assigned to the Royal Air Force, which scrambled two pairs of Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.MK 4s from Lossiemouth and a third pair from RAF Coningsby. Tanker support was provided by an Airbus Voyager.
While one of the Bears was a standard Tu-142MK Bear-F Mod 3 anti-submarine warfare patroller, the other was a Tu-142MRM Bear-J. Based on the Tu-142MK fuselage, the Bear-J is used to communicate with submerged submarines in a “take charge and move out” role similar to that undertaken by the U.S. Navy’s Boeing E-6 Mercury. It uses a range of communications systems, including very low frequency (VLF), to transmit messages between national command authorities and submerged missile-carrying submarines.
Bear-J has a reshaped nose with weather radar, a forward-facing high-frequency antenna at the tip of the fin, and a VLF trailing wire antenna (TWA) located in a large fairing beneath the belly. Fitted with a cone-shaped weighted body on the end, the TWA is reeled out to a reported length of 7,680 meters (29,200 feet), a process that takes nearly 40 minutes to accomplish. The aircraft flies in an orbit so that the lower part of the wire hangs vertically over one spot while the antenna transmits and receives.
The original Tu-142MR became operational in 1986 and was assigned to the Northern Fleet at Kipelovo and Pacific Fleet at Monghotko. Recently the small force has been upgraded by Beriev at Taganrog—where Tu-142s were built from the early 1970s—to the Tu-142MRM standard, with modern communications equipment that is compatible with that of the latest Russian submarines.
Update: On March 9 two Tu-142MZ Bear-F Mod 4 aircraft conducted a long-distance flight over the Arctic from their Russian Far East base at Monghotko. During the mission they overflew U.S. Navy submarines that had surfaced through the sea ice at the temporary Camp Seadragon base during the annual ICEX exercise. They were escorted by Canadian CF-18 Hornets and U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors. Two more Tu-142s were intercepted over the North Atlantic by RAF Typhoons on March 11, while on March 12 Typhoons were launched to identify and escort two Tu-160 Blackjack bombers.