Navy to retire Russian Tu-142 fleet, American aircraft take on role - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Sunday 26 March 2017

Navy to retire Russian Tu-142 fleet, American aircraft take on role

Boeing P-8I takes off from Arakkonam, with a Tu-142 in the backdrop

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 27th March 17

For almost three decades, the Indian Navy’s giant, four-engine Tupolev-142MK-E has been the most feared aerial predator in Indian Ocean, the stuff of nightmares for Pakistani submarine crews.

On Wednesday, the 29-year era of the Tu-142 will draw to a close, when the 312nd Indian Navy Aviation Squadron (INAS - 312) at INS Rajali, at Arrakonam in Tamil Nadu retires these “long range maritime reconnaissance” (LRMR) aircraft.

In its place, the job of searching out and destroying enemy submarines in the waters off India’s coast will fall to the navy’s new fleet of a dozen Boeing P-8I aircraft.

In an indicator of shifting geopolitics, India paid $2.1 billion for eight P-8I anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft, following that up with another, billion dollar contract for four more. After the eight Tu-142 and five Ilyushin-38 aircraft are all retired, LRMR --- which was the exclusive preserve of Soviet/Russian aircraft --- will be carried out entirely by American aircraft.

Since the Tu-142 first joined the Indian Navy in 1988, the aircraft has been one of the world’s most iconic and recognisable submarine hunters. The size of half a football field, the Tu-142 has four contra-rotating propeller engines (two propellers rotating in one direction, the other two in another) that allow it to fly 13,000 kilometres without refuelling. It is the world’s largest and faster turboprop aircraft, says the navy.

On ASW patrols close to the mainland, the Tu-142 can loiter (continuously monitor an area) for up to 10½ hours. Eleven crewmembers locate enemy submarines with sonobuoys and magnetic anomaly detectors (which pick up a submarine’s magnetic signature), which can then be destroyed with anti-submarine mines and torpedoes.

This capability has been maintained to the last, with one Tu-142 clocking 53 flying hours at Tropex 2017, the Indian Navy’s annual operational exercise, according to a naval spokesperson.

“The Tu-142 has lived its total technical life and it is no longer economically viable to keep it in service. Russia continues to operate its Tu-142 fleet, but the cold conditions they function in are much easier on the aircraft”, says the Flag Officer Naval Aviation, Rear Admiral Puneet Bahl.

The Tu-142M was the Soviet Union’s answer during the Cold War to America’s Polaris, the world’s first submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) with a range of 1,800 kilometres. After the Polaris became operational in 1960 on the submarine, USS George Washington, the Tupolev Design Bureau took a full decade to perfect the Tu-142M to keep track of US Navy missile submarines.

Designated the “Bear” by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, for which the aircraft remained an enigma, more than a hundred Tu-142 variants were built for the Soviet, Russian, Ukrainian and Indian navies.

The Tu-142, like the MiG-25RB Foxbat reconnaissance aircraft, was a cutting-edge Soviet military platform that Moscow shared only with close allies that it regarded with special favour.

Like the Tu-142, the Boeing P-8 is operated by a handful of partners. Only the Indian and Australian navies fly the aircraft, while the US Navy will eventually operate a giant fleet of 117 aircraft.

Based on a Boeing 737-8/9 airframe, the P-8I has the world’s most modern radar sensors and a weapons package that includes the formidable Harpoon Block II anti-ship missile, Mark 54 torpedoes, and the Mark 52 depth charge.

In addition, the P-8I is data-linked with Indian submarines, to which it can pass on the location of any enemy submarine it detects. The Indian submarines can then zero-in on the intruder and fire torpedoes to destroy it.

Based on a commercial airliner’s airframe, the Boeing P-8I costs much less to operate, maintain and overhaul. 


  1. Tu-142 makes so much noise that submerged submarines know when it is around!

  2. each engine has eighth propellers, four rotating clockwise and 4 counter clock wise.

  3. Why not convert them into long range bombers carrying Brahmos cruise missile? Something similar to B-52 bombers in US.

  4. Give those planes to Indian Institute of technologies to reverse engineer them and improve them with additional grants.

  5. I really don't understand how the Boeing P-8I can be a replacement for the Tu-142M. The Tupolev has a much greater range and loiter capacity than the Boeing which both of which are crucial for submarine hunting. Your view Ajai?

  6. There is no modern long range maritime patrol aircraft in the market. Boeing 737 based p-8 is the best bet for us.
    However this will need to operate with long range drones to cover large areas that TUs and Ils effortlessly did.
    We will surely muss the big TU till then.

  7. The Tupolevs look in fine shape from the picture. Some of our Mig's are in much worse shape. Also, 4 engines instead of 2.

  8. We lost one more great plane but it is the universal rule that old things will go and new things will come
    And we should also move for the future,future has lot of new technology,

  9. The end of an era, with the beginning of a new one....

    I just hope that the fleet of Tu 142s are retained in our museums and as incredible gate Guards!

    Do you happen to know if there will be a formal decommissioning ceremony?


  10. Very insightful as always.

  11. You never fail to amaze me as to how much of knowledge you have across different services. Hoping the defense ministry has people like you advising them.

  12. It is terrible to see perfectly operational aircraft being junked, cut up and transported to be museums. This aircraft is probably the best fit available for the heavy test aircraft that DRDO so badly needs. There seems to be a complete lack of purpose and imagination in how we deal with our retired military hardware.


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