After this weeks flight of two Tu-95MSM “Bears” off the South West coast of the UK, I thought it would be a good time to release the article I produced for The Spectrum Monitor in October 2014. The article covers not only information on the Tu-95 and Tu-160 “Blackjack” but also on how to monitor these flights. There’s also some additional information that I’ve discovered I’d left out of the article plus some recordings from this weeks mission.
With regards to the flight this week, it certainly caused quite a stir, making it onto the major national news channels. There was lots of speculation that they flew all the way along the English Channel causing lots of disruption to Civil flights into and out of the UK; also lots of rubbish spoken about what ATC can and can’t see. Though I can’t comment much, I will say I don’t believe the Bears flew all the way along the channel, instead I think they went no further than to the SW of the UK. From the playbacks I’ve seen on FR24, it looks like most of the disruption was caused by the tanking of the Typhoons by the A.330 – this area has been available for tanking for many years.
To answer the question about whether the aircraft can be seen on radar because they are not using transponders – well yes of course they can. It’s just there’s no associated height information, (which isn’t always there even if aircraft do use transponders)and of course it makes it harder to track. But, there are primary radar returns that’s for sure. Where I think people are getting confused is when the Bears are flying north/south across the Atlantic tracks in Shanwick’s airspace. Here they can not be seen as they are outside the range of radar, but by this time they would have been met up by Typhoons which gives all the relevant information about height etc over the radio . I hope this clears that up.
Anyway, on to the article
When I say Bear hunting, I’m not referring to tracking furry creatures around the countryside using sophisticated radio devices as aides, finally getting into the position for a kill or photograph. No, I’m referring to the monitoring of the Russian Air Force Strategic Bomber networks on HF.
Although in general the monitoring is referred to as “Bear hunting” and the frequencies monitored are in the widely used term, “Bear Net”, this is an incorrect name as it is not always Tupolev Tu-95 “Bears” that we are hearing.
The Russian Strategic Air Force is officially known as the Long-range Aviation Command and is made up of two heavy bomber divisions. The aircraft types used are Tupolev Tu-95MS “Bear H” and Tupolev Tu-160 “Blackjack” along with the non-Nuclear bomber, Tupolev Tu-22M3 “Backfire C” which is split into four divisions. As well as the bombers themselves, there’s also other types of aircraft used to help support the missions; these being Ilyushin IL-78M “Midas” air to air refuelling tankers, and Beriev A-50 or A-50U “Mainstay” AWACS – these types being based on Ilyushin IL-76 transport airframes.
It is also presumed that other types are used in the missions, such as Ilyushin IL-76VKP and Ilyushin Il-86VKP “Maxdome” Command Posts (much like the role carried out by E-4Bs National Airborne Operations Centre aircraft used by the USAF) and even Ilyushin IL-38 “May” maritime patrol aircraft used by the Russian Navy (the USN P-3 equivalent). In general though, these types aren’t heard by those that monitor the frequencies regularly, especially the IL-76VKPs and IL-86VKPs as their statuses are not widely known, and their believed running costs make them almost too expensive to fly. The Russian Navy participation in exercises must take place, much like the combined exercises that the US Forces carry out – bombing missions/exercises supported by USN E-6Bs for instance.
There are other variants of the “Bears”, these being Tu-142MK’s and Tu-142MR’s (“Bear F/Bear J” respectively) but these are operated by the Russian Navy with Bear F’s used for Anti-Submarine Warfare, equipped with different radar fits and weapons systems designed specifically for Sub hunting; whilst Bear J’s are VLF communication airframes much like USN E-6B’s. There’s every possibility these do take part in some of the exercises we hear.
Getting back to the Air Force Bombers themselves, as previously mentioned above, there are two Strategic Divisions. These are the 6950th Guards Air Base at Engels Air Force base in the Saratov Oblast region of Russia; and the 6952nd Air Base at Ukrainka in the Amurskaya Oblast region. If you have Google Earth I’ve uploaded a kmz file showing their locations.
The bases are then divided into Regiments with the Engels base containing the 121st Guards regiment flying Tu-160s and the 184th regiment flying Tu-95MS’s. Ukrainka is made up of the 79th and 182nd regiments, both flying the Tu-95MS. Because of START, the numbers of each type flying are known, with 55 Tu-95MS’s and 11 Tu-160’s available to the Russian Air Force, but again, the full status of each airframe is somewhat hazy, even in the modern world of information technology available on the internet – there’s certainly many more photos of these types available to view online than there ever was available before the invention of the internet. The split of numbers between each regiment is again unknown, but Satellite images show up to 18 Tu-95’s at Ukrainka on the bombers apron.
Engels is almost certainly supported by IL-78 tankers either based at Engels itself, or from the Ryazan Air Force base which has the 203rd regiment based there. Ryazan is also a training and maintenance facility for the bombers. Ukrainka possibly has its own regiment of IL-78’s, but details on these are unknown at this time, it could even be another deployment of Ryazan tankers.
The Tu-95MS’s have a crew of seven, and can carry up to 16 Air Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCM), both Nuclear and conventional. Crew members comprise of:
Two pilots, radio operator, nav/defensive operator, flight engineer, bomber/nav and rear tail gunner. There’s also a spare seat for observers. The aircraft operate between 25,000ft and 38,000ft and can fly at speeds of 500kts (Mach 0.83) at the lower level. Unrefuelled they have a range of 3,455 miles, increasing to 4,480 miles with one refuel. They have however carried out multiple refuels extending this range even further. The most unique feature of the aircraft has to be the four Samara Kuznetsov NK-12MP turboprops each with eight-blade contra-rotating propellers – they make a very distinct sound
The aircraft themselves are split into three variants:
Tu-95MS-H6 and Tu-95MS-H16, referring to the number of cruise missiles the aircraft can carry. The main six missiles are on a rotary launcher inside the aircraft, with the H16 types having the ability to hold a further 10 missiles on pylons on the wings. For START purposes though, the H16’s are to be converted down to H6 standard only, if they haven’t been so already. The third variant is the Tu-95MSM which is an upgraded version designed to carry new type of ALCM.
The number of each variant is, as usual as its Russia, not fully known, but it is presumed most, if not all, are now of the Tu-95MSM designation, probably going from the H16 variant to this directly instead of downgrading to the H6 and then up again. The Tu-95MSM can be distinguished by the fact it is carrying eight of a new type of ALCM on pylons under the wings as these missiles are too long to fit in the internal weapons bay. Of course, they still have the option of using the internal rotary launcher and older ALCM’s if required.
The Tu-160’s have a crew of four comprising of two pilots, and one bomber/nav and a comms/nav operator. They have variable geometry wings that can be manually swept back as speed increases, the maximum speed being Mach 2.05 at 40,000ft. They normally cruise at about Mach 0.9 or 518kts at high altitude but they are fully capable of flying low level down to 250ft. The Tu-160 carries its weapons in two separate internal weapons bays, each with six missiles on rotary launchers
Weapons wise, both aircraft types are primarily intended to carry ALCM’s. A recently new ALCM has been designated the Kh-101/Kh-102, the latter having a nuclear warhead. The Kh-101 has a 400kg HE warhead designed to penetrate hardened shelters and has a range of around 5,000km at a speed of about 700kmh. They are reported to be accurate to 12 – 20m from this range. It is believed that an upgrade to the Tu-160s started in 2006 gave them the ability to use Kh-101/Kh-102’s.
By far the greatest number of ALCMs available for both aircraft types are Kh-55/Kh-555 (NATO AS-15 “Kent”). There are a few sub types available but for simplicity, the Kh-55 (AS-15A and B) types have nuclear warheads, whilst the Kh-555 (AS-15C) is a conventional weapon with a 410kg HE warhead. Ranges vary from 2,000km to 3,500km. There are over 700 Kh-55 ALCM’s still in existence according to reports. The long term plan was reportedly to be 500 nuclear armed ALCM’s in the inventory made up from both Kh-55 “Kent B” and Kh-102 types.
Monitoring the “Bears”
In all references to “Bears” it could actually mean either the Tu-95s or Tu-160s but it’s just easier to generalise the term to save space. More often than not they are Tu-95s though as there’s a greater number of these aircraft in the fleet.
The Bear networks use both CW and USB for communication; CW is Duplex with ground stations on one frequency and the aircraft on another; whilst in USB mode the networks are simplex. The frequencies are contained in the table provided, but as you’ll see there’s still one missing; in fact it was only recently that I discovered the summer air frequency used – until this time it was not known by the many that monitor the Bears (well no-one else had published it anyway). No doubt there are more frequencies used as, as you can see, there are secondary ground frequencies in other seasons.
The Russian Military in general use a seasonal system for selecting their frequencies and for the Bear net these haven’t changed over the last few years.
I also have VHF/UHF Air to Air frequencies that the Bears have used in the past that I forgot to put in the article:
As well as HF, they also use VHF/UHF for normal transmissions to ATC, Air to Air etc. These HF networks are solely for communicating with presumably HQ Moscow and other strategic agencies, their homebase for instance. It’s even possibly transmissions to radar sites or an equivalent to the Mainsail or “Skymaster” calls made by USAF bombers.
Usually the first sign that the Bears are up is the activation of Marker Beacons on the CW networks. Every 20 minutes, lasting for two minutes, a single letter will be repeated by CW. It is always on the H+00, H+20 and H+40 and normally hand sent. The marker most commonly heard is “W” and this is almost certainly Moscow and the Strategic (or Long-Range Aviation) headquarters. Another is “G” which is believed to be Ukrainka. Engels probably has a marker but it is unknown, but various other markers noted include “Q”, “R” and “Z”.
The Naval Bears also use a Marker system, with Moscow using “C” and Arkhangelsk/Severomorsk using “S” , but it’s just as possible they also use the very same network here. Without visual identification of the aircraft you just don’t know who you’re listening too, but more on that later.
The purpose of the markers is so that the aircrew can check their radio equipment, and also confirm they are able to receive the appropriate unit they need to communicate with. If there are two markers on the go at the same time, as recently with both G and W, the one that isn’t Moscow seems to start about a minute earlier so that there’s a slight overlap. On USB there are no markers. I always wonder which is the primary method of communication here, as CW from the ground certainly has a better range, well for me anyway. Moscow “W” is normally very loud, though as usual propagation plays its part sometimes.
The Bears normally start the communications with Moscow, and I would say it’s likely to be an airborne or status message. But there is no way of telling as the messages are coded. Be it using CW or USB the aircraft always send messages containing groups of three numbers. Ordinarily there doesn’t appear to be a pattern to the numbers as such but they obviously have a meaning, examples of CW messages are:
1244z KFE4 DE KL3U QTC = 728 988 046 927 579 274 780 545 419 069 009
1321z KL3U = 871 988 990 084 158 304 182 397
These messages are from an excursion to the edge of UK airspace on the 19th August this year. Interestingly, I also picked them up on the 20th August 2013, also the third Tuesday of August – coincidence? To breakdown the message above, KFE4 is the ground station, KL3U is the Bear flight. There’s a possibility that the ground station callsign “travels” along with the flight, with a different ground station taking over the callsign to give complete radio coverage. This is just another theory though.
Now we all have our own ideas about the numbers and to be honest I just don’t know the true answer as to what they could possibly mean. I would expect them to be position or progress reports, status reports even. Interestingly, in this mission there were multiple messages starting with 728 or 871, and every time a message began with these numbers the second number group matched:
1153z KFE4 DE KL3U QTC = 728 577 046 025 084 920 423 545 091 804 895
1211z KFE4 DE KL3U QTC = 871 577 990 396 743 406 287 753
You may also notice that comparing the message examples, the third group is the same with regards to the first group; 728 is 046, 871 is 990. This repeats throughout the messages of this mission.
To confuse things slightly though, there is a third first group involved with KL3U, this is 558:
1301z KFE4 DE KL3U QTC = 558 130 422 295 396 246
558 messages never matched any of the second group numbers to 728 and 871, and the third group is never the same.
The messages starting 558 are more in line with the other missions I’ve logged which look totally random. There also messages that are short from an aircraft which are then an hour later at the beginning of a longer message from the ground station, such as these sent in March this year:
1612z P9DL = 710 282 073 633
1728z TRL5 = 710 282 073 633 276 040 795 197 136 802 777 539 643 709
It wasn’t until writing this article that I noticed there’s actually a forth first group in the recent mission, 732, which matches the same format as 558. So, as you can see, there’s random and there’s fixed message types. I do enjoy trying to crack these codes, something I managed to achieve in January when I analysed messages from IL-76 transporters ferrying equipment to Syria as part of the Chemical weapons removal. This can be read in my blog from that time.
Part of me thinks that each first group is a separate aircraft within the formation but there are a couple of things that cancel that theory out. Firstly, this pattern doesn’t follow in previous missions and secondly, the keying was almost certainly done by the same person due to the “fingerprint” of the CW. However, as with most formation flights of any Air Force, it could well be that only one aircraft is sending messages for all aircraft in the formation, the lead aircraft for example. The Russian Navy does this when there is a group of ships travelling together, with quite often one ship sending messages for all. It is generally believed that the air callsigns are individual aircraft as there have definitely been other missions were more than one callsign has been in contact with the ground – but were these in fact other airborne assets and not the bomber flight?
The aircraft callsigns seem to be tactical and change every time whilst the ground callsigns appear to be fixed with the same ones being used each season, examples being:
TRL5 – spring
TV6P, IZ2J and KFE4 – summer
4ASU, QZ6Y and PUO7 – autumn
IWV4 – winter
It is always a better monitoring experience if you can pick up both CW Air and Ground so that you can get both sides of the “conversation”, but this isn’t always the case, with just the ground audible. The transmitters on the aircraft are not big, and they are not powerful so it is hard to pick them up. Of course, if they happen to head over towards the UK then they do get very clear indeed, as happened recently when at least two Bears flew close to the Shetland Islands off the NE coast of Scotland.
Hearing both sides of the R/T isn’t a problem on USB as it’s a simplex network, but range of aircraft from the reception point and propagation will of course play a part in this. Your knowledge of the Russian language though is going to be main hindrance in any monitoring. Usually the ground station is very much stronger, much like the CW network.
Russian is hard enough as it is, but when you’re listening in on HF to something where the crew themselves have to wear headsets with additional noise defence fitted to the earpieces, you can just imagine what it sounds like. To put it another way, you can normally tell you are listening to a Tu-95 and not a Tu-160 because you can actually hear the turbine engines in the background! And the crew are normally shouting down the mic. To add to the difficulty of working out the messages there’s the way the numbers are said. Some say them in singles – Dva Vosem Dva (282); but then other crew members will say them as long numbers, two hundred and eighty two for example which in Russian is “dvesti vosem’desyat dva”. Luckily, you’ll normally get a second chance at the numbers as the ground controllers will read them back, often in both methods as described. I know numbers in Russian, and I really struggle, especially in the non-singular method. A recording is normally necessary to get it right – if possible.
As I’ve already stated, the message formats are the same, three figure groups. But there is a difference in callsigns. For starters the aircraft use a different call to the CW one, comprising of five numbers, 50271 for example. These numbers are logged differently by some people, 50-271 for the previous example. This is because of the way the callsigns are sent: “Fifty, two hundred and seventy one”. But I think this is wrong, and there’s possible photographic evidence that points towards the numbers being a five figure group. There’s a link to the photo evidence at the end of this report.
The ground stations also have voice callsigns as opposed to the four digit call in CW. In a way this is understandable as some of the callsigns are long and would be hard to do quickly in CW. Again though, the ground callsigns are fixed and never change, they’re not even seasonally split as far we can tell. Callsigns heard include:
ADRIS – new callsign for the recent flight
SHPORA – believed to be Rostov-na-Donu though not proven
The location of the other callsigns is unknown, but BALANS and NABOR are called the most and it seems likely one of them is Moscow or Long Range HQ.
Now here’s the strange thing. The actual message format is the same as I’ve already said, and yet when CW and USB have been sent at the same time, no doubt from the same aircraft formation, the actual message is different. As an example here’s two messages sent at exactly the same time, 0212z on the 20th August 2013:
CW: TV6P = 161 179 985 027 614 591 089 C = (this is a read back from the ground station TV6P)
USB: 30977 calls Medyanka – 527 268 987 627 805 893 206 591 093
Except for the penultimate group (591), no other number is the same, but there are similarities. At the end of the day though, these messages are being sent by Strategic Nuclear bombers, they are probably exactly what would be sent should the unthinkable happen and the aircraft are dispatched for real. The messages are not supposed to be decoded, and if I was able to I’d be a very rich man thanks to NATO. Liken them to the equally unbreakable EAM messages sent by the HF-GCS network if you like.
Of note in USB mode is that there are a lot of relay messages from one aircraft to another, something that I haven’t found in CW mode. This is probably down to CW having a better chance of getting through noise and propagation than voice transmissions. Sometimes, though, CW messages are sent blind.
More often than not the aircraft actually head east these days, especially those from Ukrainka. In the Cold War this wasn’t the case and the Bears made regular trips to Europe skirting around the northern parts, not entering any sovereign airspace, and even heading into the North Atlantic region. If they did this, it would cause all sorts of trouble as they don’t declare themselves to Shanwick Oceanic and normally just cut south across all the Oceanic tracks. The only method of knowing where they are here is via long range radar (which as you can imagine aren’t pointing out over the Atlantic as there’s not much threat to the UK from that direction) or via an “escort” of RAF fighter aircraft. These flights to the Atlantic are increasing again, sometimes going as far south as Portugal and beyond.
Most nations have a QRA (Quick Reaction/Alert) capability and in Northern Europe they used to get launched regularly but this died down when the Soviet Union fell. Russia had a lack of funds for a very long time and its military fell by the wayside; until Putin’s recent reprisal of it all. In the last few years, Bear missions have increased from practically none a year to two a month, especially recently. Sometimes it’s two a week to Europe or Pacific regions, or maybe one to Europe and one to the Pacific at the same time. Either way, they are getting more and more frequent again.
QRA aircraft will launch from the various countries along the route and intercept the Bears in “free” airspace, take some pictures, note down the aircraft identities (reporting this back directly to the Air Defence Controllers), wave and generally ensure the aircraft do not enter sovereign airspace. If the Bears continue skirting the edges of various other countries, then the current escorting QRA will hand over to the next country along the way. It takes a lot of resources to carry out the QRA task, with fighter crews being on immediate standby at their bases, 24/7, along with at least one air-refuelling tanker required to sustain the flights here in the UK. Should it be a long task, another flight of fighters will get airborne to take over whilst the first pair get a refuel. There is no messing around here though, the fighters that go up to meet the Bears are fully armed and make sure the Russian crews are aware of this fact by showing them.
Obviously, the intercepts are also monitored here in the UK and Europe but I’m not at liberty to say frequencies used due to the very nature of the missions. One thing this monitoring does provide though is the identity of the Russian aircraft, because as I mentioned earlier, the intercept aircraft report back the type and tail numbers of the Bears.
Of note from a recent intercept by RAF fighters, at the time the lead Typhoon reported flying in formation with the lead Bear, a message was sent on CW. Was this a message being sent back home that they had met up with the UK Air Defence?
Finally, it is also worth noting that CW isn’t always received even though there’s plenty of traffic on USB. The markers will still be being sent every 20 minutes, but there’ll be no actual traffic. I’ve not known it to be the other way round with CW only and no USB.
Recordings from the flights on the 28th January 2015
NOTE – These recordings are copyrighted to me. It has been noticed that other recordings have ended up on YouTube, uploaded by a third party. Should this happen with my recordings, further action will be taken
8131kHz 1058z – Callsigns believed to be 72181 and 72182 calling BALANS, ADRIS, KATOLIK and GEOLOG. Aircraft types are still unknown at this time but possibly the IL-78 refuellers. They call each other and chat about not getting through to any station.
8131kHz 1130z – Callsign 72186 makes calls initially with no luck, then calls 72182 and asks them to try the ground stations, which they do, also with no joy
8131kHz 1224z – Callsign 72181 calls initially followed by 72182 calling 72181. After a brief conversation 72182 tries BALANS getting through (very faint on this recording).72181 then tries BALANS again and gets through with following coded message 949 867 069 473 250 197 518. BALANS doesn’t get the message and 72181 tries two more times but BALANS doesn’t get the message clearly. Note – to cut down the length of the recording the faint BALANS transmissions are cut out