The reconnaissance versions of the Tu-16 saw the most action in the Cold War. In the course of such sorties the Badgers were often intercepted by shore-based or shipboard NATO fighters over international waters…
Developed to meet a Soviet Ministry of Defense requirement for a fast bomber that would counter the threat posed by NATO, the Tupolev Tu-16 (NATO reporting name: Badger) was a ground-breaking project. It was the first Soviet medium bomber to feature swept wings, and it was built around a pair of turbojets that were the world’s most powerful jet engines at the time. First flown in 1952, the Tu-16 filled such roles as nuclear bomb delivery, missile strike, reconnaissance, and Electronic Counter Measures.
As explained by Yefim Gordon, Dmitriy Komissarov, and Vladimir Rigmant in their book Tupolev Tu-16: Versatile Cold War Bomber, reconnaissance versions of the Tu-16 were used in combined-arms exercises on land and naval exercises, and the Tu-16R was regularly used to follow the movements and exercises of NATO navies in the seas and oceans adjacent to Soviet territorial waters. A pair of Tu-16Rs were normally assigned to this task. There were two reasons why such sorties were invariably flown in pairs. Firstly, one aircraft in the pair was often fitted with the SRS-1 ELINT set and the other with the SRS-3; this was to ensure comprehensive coverage of all possible radar frequencies used by the NATO ships. Secondly, if one aircraft came down in the ocean the crew of the other Tu-16 could report the coordinates of the crash site to the base, improving the chances that the downed crew would be rescued before they died of exposure.
When the Tu-16RM-1 and Tu-16RM-2 entered Soviet Navy service they, too, were used in these operations, as monitoring the movements of NATO carrier task forces was a standing assignment. In the 1960s and 1970s Western aviation publications were full of photographs showing Soviet Tu-16Rs and ‘RMs flying over the decks of US Navy and Royal Navy aircraft carriers.
It was perhaps the reconnaissance versions of the Tu-16 that saw the most action in the Cold War. In the course of such sorties the Badgers were often intercepted by shore-based or shipboard NATO fighters over international waters. As a precaution against itchy trigger fingers, it was a standing rule that neither side should use the other as a practice target during such intercepts so as to avoid an accidental shootdown, and the tail gunners of the Tu-16s always kept the cannons fully raised to show they had no hostile intentions.
Still, incidents did happen, especially at times when political tensions between the East and the West were high.
On Oct. 4, 1973, a North Fleet/967th ODRAP Tu-16R captained by Lt.-Col. A. P. Sviridov was flying a sortie over the Norwegian Sea in search of a US Navy CTF led by the carrier USS John F. Kennedy. When the Badger approached the CTF at 100 m (330 ft), a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighter launched from the carrier to intercept it. The fighter pilot favoured a ‘wait until you can see the whites of their eyes’ tactic — the F-4 manoeuvred dangerously, approaching within 4-6 m (13-20 ft) of the Tu-16R. Eventually, positioning himself under the Badger’s loss starboard wing, the pilot gunned the throttles and pitched the fighter up, apparently trying to intimidate the Soviet crew. However, he misjudged the manoeuvre and the F-4 struck the Tu-16 with its fin, damaging the wing skin. Unable to land normally on the carrier, the Phantom had to make a forced landing in Norway; the Tu-16R also managed to return to Severomorsk-3 AB, despite the danger of fire and explosion. For this sortie Sviridov was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Combat.
In the early 1980s a Tu-16 on patrol over the Atlantic Ocean was intercepted by three of the latest American carrier-based fighters, the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A Hornet. Trying to scare the Soviet aircraft off its intended course, the fighters performed dangerous manoeuvres, including head-on passes. Eventually this game of chicken got the better of the players: two of the fighters collided directly above the Tu-16 and exploded; one pilot was killed, the other managed to eject. The Badger, too, was struck by flying debris and damaged; luckily the aircraft managed to limp back to base thanks to the courage and skill of its crew.
Conversely, sometimes the US Navy fighters would actual lead the Tu-16s to the CTF. The reason was simple: the fighters always operated in pairs or threes; the crews would take pictures of each other’s aircraft and get paid for a properly documented intercept! There seemed to be a tacit understanding between the Soviet and American airmen; like, ‘look, we’re both pros; we’re both doing our job, so we’ll let you do your job if you let us do ours.’
Tupolev Tu-16: Versatile Cold War Bomber is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy