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[Honey] Badger Don’t Care–The Soviet Union’s Jack Of All Trades Bomber Turns 65

There wasn’t much the Soviets couldn’t hang from this versatile bomber.

On April 27th 1952 Soviet test pilot N.S. Rybko flew the prototype that would eventually become the Tupelov Tu-16 Badger for the first time. The Tupelov Design Bureau had been drawing bombers since the 1920s. Old Andrei Tupelov (1888-1972) got his start working from designs penned by noted German designer Hugo Junkers. In fact Tupelov’s first facility started life as a secret Junkers facility outside Moscow in 1925. Tupelov’s early designs were said to be influenced by Junkers, but it didn’t take long for Tupelov to begin work on some of the Soviet Union’s finest bomber aircraft.

By June of 1950 the Soviet Union needed a bigger and more advanced jet bomber beyond the Ilyushin Il-28 Beagle. Tupelov’s design, the basis for the Tu-16, was initially designated Tu-88. The aircraft had swept wings and tail surfaces, was powered by two turbojet engines mounted in the wing roots, and boasted high-subsonic speed with 5,000-mile range and 11,000 pounds of payload. Defensive armament included 23 millimeter cannon twin-mounted in ventral, dorsal, and tail turrets. During State trials Tupelov received approval for full production of the bomber, now designated Tu-16.

Although the initial Tu-16 prototype was an impressive aircraft, it was the second prototype that more closely met the design parameters. When first flown on April 6th 1953, again by the noted Soviet test pilot Rybko, the airframe was lighter, the nose was longer, fuel capacity was increased, and the defensive armament was installed. Trials commenced and were completed a year later with service acceptance another month after that. Tupelov’s design bureau had produced the Tu-4 Bull, which was the reverse-engineered Boeing B-29 Superfortress design. Observers believed the long thin fuselage of the Tu-16 might have had its origins in the Superfort.

On October 29th 1953, the first production Tu-16 was rolled out at Tupelov’s Kazan factory. Nine Tu-16s flew over the May Day parade in Moscow on May 1st 1954. 40 Badgers flew over the Tsushino Air Show in August of the same year. Once NATO became aware of the new Soviet bomber the aircraft was assigned the NATO reporting name Badger. Thus began 40 years of service by the Tu-16 series to the Soviet Union, and later to its individual former states after the end of the Cold War. Including the Tu-104 civilian airliner version, the Tupelov design was adapted into some 30 individual variants.

A total of 1,507 Badgers were built at three Tupelov factories between 1953 and 1963. Tu-16s became missile carriers, torpedo bombers, inflight refueling tankers, electronic countermeasures (ECM) aircraft, antisubmarine warfare (ASW) aircraft, reconnaissance and maritime surveillance aircraft, and search and rescue (SAR) aircraft. And of course bombers as well. Many of the Badgers built were reworked to perform other or additional roles as their service lives went on. Several Tu-16s were used as experimental testing aircraft and for systems and weapons trials. By the early 1960s the advent of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) forced many of the Soviet Badgers into early retirement or career changes.

The bomber version of the Badger carried a six man crew: The pilot, co-pilot, radar navigator/bombardier, and navigator/gunner flew in the forward fuselage. The radio operator/gunner and tail gunner flew in the rear fuselage and tail. Badger bombers were used extensively during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. But Soviet bombers had to have range. They developed a way to extend range using inflight refueling, but the implementation was quirky. The tanker aircraft would trail a fuel hose off its starboard side wingtip. The thirsty Badger would try to link up with a receiver in its port wingtip. The Soviets tried the American hose-and-drogue method but couldn’t make it work at first. They eventually got their own system ironed out, and every Badger was equipped to receive fuel while airborne using the wingtip method. Later Badger tankers mounted a probe-and-drogue “basket” for refueling probe-equipped Soviet aircraft.

The Soviet navy developed the anachronistic Tu-16T torpedo bomber version of the Badger. Obsolete even before it was introduced, most of them were re-worked into the first versions of Badger anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft. Equipped with primitive sonobuoy data processing systems and aerial depth charges, these aircraft eventually carried anti-submarine torpedoes. The Badger made an excellent ASW platform but the Soviets committed more Tu-95 Bear airframes to ASW than they did Badgers.

Many Badgers were used as missile carriers. The early Soviet missiles were large and heavy, requiring a bomber the size of the Badger to get them close enough to their targets (often times American aircraft carriers) for them to be effective. The Badger could carry two of the AS-1 Kennel missile, which was a truly huge weapon. Badgers were modified to add radar in the nose and radio antennae to the vertical stabilizer. Use of the Kennel also required another crew member, who rode in a dedicated bomb bay mission pod.

The advent of the AS-5 Kelt missile meant more adaptation by the Badgers. The airframe required modification to carry the Kelt. So too did the radar installation. Improved autopilots and electronic countermeasures (ECM) equipment went aboard the missile carriers as well. When the Soviets added the AS-6 Kingfish missile during the late 1960s they had a truly formidable weapon to hang from the Badger. Usually only one Kingfish was carried, but with Mach 3 speed and on-board guidance one might have seemed like enough.

The pattern continued through the addition of the AS-2 Kipper missile. Previous Badger missile carriers had usually retained their ability to drop bombs, but the Kipper was carried recessed ventrally and was extended out from its carriage position for launch. An even larger nose radome was added to Badgers carrying the Kipper. Supposedly the new radome improved aerodynamics. In any case the ultimate Badger missileer was likely the Badger-C, which could carry a Kipper and two Kelts. The Badger-Cs were kept up to date with the latest equipment and electronics, allowing them to launch the various versions of the air-to-surface weapons as they evolved.

Badgers, and the missiles they brought to the fight, were always a concern for American aircraft carriers. Luckily we never found out just how effective the aircraft-missile combinations were because they were never used against a carrier battle group. In 1964 the Soviets were conducting a live missile shoot in the North Pacific. A Japanese merchant ship wandered into the test area. Only a range safety mechanism kept the Sine Maru from being the recipient of a Kelt missile. The weapon detonated a couple of hundred yards from the vessel, spraying it with shrapnel and wounding a crew member.

The Chinese began building Badgers of their own in the late 1950s. They still operate about 120 of them under the designation H-6 today. On May 14th 1965 one of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) H-6 bombers dropped the first airborne nuclear weapon test inside China. Current and former Badger operators include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, People’s Republic of China, Egypt, Georgia, Indonesia, Iraq, Russia, Soviet Union, and Ukraine. The former Soviet states retired their last Badgers in 1993.

Six things you might not know about the Tupelov Tu-16 Badger:

  1. The designation Tu-16S was given to a version of the Badger that was outfitted with an air-droppable lifeboat to be used for search and rescue operations, similar to the American search and rescue SB-17 Flying Fortress and SB-29 Superfortress search and rescue bombers.
  2. Fuel for the various Soviet missiles carried by the Badger was often topped off using the fuel carried in the Badger This arrangement was risky but the Soviets made it work.
  3. The Soviets first overflew an American aircraft carrier in September of 1962. What is not commonly known is that this overflight was also intercepted and electronic intelligence about the Tu-16 radar and communications systems was gathered by an EA-3B Skywarrior electronic warfare aircraft. The electronic intelligence gathered helped create effective ECM systems to be used against the Badger and other Soviet threats.
  4. An aggressive overflight program began in 1963, intended to demonstrate that American and NATO aircraft carriers could be attacked by missile-toting Badgers (and Bears) pretty much anywhere. Between January 27th and February 27th 1963 Soviet Badgers and Bears overflew the aircraft carriers Constellation (CVA-64) and Kitty Hawk (CVA-63) in the Pacific and the Enterprise (CVN-65) and Forrestal (CVA-59) in the Atlantic. These overflights were considered a risk to the carriers and for that reason…
  5. Many of the photographs of airborne Badgers also depict an American aircraft escorting the Soviet aircraft. F-8 Crusaders, F-4 Phantoms, F-14 Tomcats, F/A-18 Hornets…even A-4 Skyhawks and A-6 Intruders would join on the Badgers as far as possible from the carriers just to let them know they cared. Of course the Soviets would try to determine the reaction times of their American opponents- which was difficult when they were usually intercepted in the outer air defense perimeter as far from the carriers as possible.
  6. Escorting American aircraft were tasked with photographing the Badgers to determine the latest configuration changes. But flying in close formation with the Soviets occasionally produced humorous moments. Russian-speaking American aircrews sometimes traded notes with the tail gunner or radio operator. Legendary stories involving Playboy centerfolds being displayed by American aircrews for the Soviets and the Soviets raising vodka toasts to the Americans. It was deadly business but every now and then a little levity broke the Cold War ice.

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Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.