May 23, 2011: On May 6th, an Indian Tu-142M recon aircraft buzzed Somali pirates that were attacking a Chinese cargo ship. The huge (50 meter/167 foot wingspan, four engine) aircraft had the desired effect, and the pirates fled. The incident took place 800 kilometers off the west coast of India, which accounts for the presence of the Indian aircraft. The pirates have become increasingly active off India, and maritime patrol aircraft, usually used to search for hostile warships, are an ideal system for spotting pirates.
This may be the last bit of action these aging aircraft will see. India is buying American P-8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft, with another four ordered earlier this year. This is largely in response to growing Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean. Three years ago, India bought eight U.S. P-8s, for about $220 million each. The growing expense of maintaining their Russian Tu-142M reconnaissance aircraft, and the need for a more capable recon aircraft, led to that initial order. The first P-8I will arrive in 2014. Not quite as massive as Tu-142s, with only a 37.6 meter (123.6 foot) wingspan, the P-9Is are jet propelled, versus the prop driven Tu-142s.
The decision to switch to U.S. maritime recon aircraft is rather recent. Four years ago India received another Russian built Tu-142 maritime reconnaissance aircraft. Beginning in 1988, when it received three of them, India bought more and now has a fleet of eight in service.
The Tu-142, which was introduced in the 1970s, is the maritime patrol version of the Tu-95 heavy bomber. The Tu-95 aircraft entered service over half a century ago, and is expected to remain in service, along with the Tu-142 variant, for another three decades. Over 500 Tu-95s were built, and it is the largest and fastest turboprop aircraft in service. Russia still maintains a force of 60 Tu-95s, but has dozens in storage, which can be restored to service as either a bomber or a Tu-142.
The 188 ton aircraft has flight crew consisting of a pilot, copilot, engineer and radioman, and an unrefueled range of 15,000 kilometers. Max speed is 925 kilometers an hour, while cruising speed is 440 kilometers an hour. Originally designed as a nuclear bomber, the Tu-142 version still can carry up to ten tons of weapons (torpedoes, mines, depth charges, anti-ship missiles, sonobuoys) and a lot more sensors (naval search radar, electronic monitoring gear). There are two 23mm autocannon mounted in the rear of the aircraft. The mission crew of a Tu-142 usually consists of eight personnel, who operate the radars and other electronic equipment. Patrol flights for the Tu-142 can last twelve hours or more, especially when in-flight refueling is used. Maximum altitude is over 14,000 meters (45,000 feet), although the aircraft flies much lower when searching for submarines. India requires aircraft like these for patrolling the vast India ocean waters that surround the subcontinent.