In the late 1950s the US Navy developed the UGM-27 Polaris, a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) with a range of more of than 1,800 kilometres (1,000 nm). The Navy test-fired rocket boosters to perfect the design, culminating in the first underwater launch of a ballistic missile by USS George Washington on 20 July 1960. Polaris became operational on 15 November that year, when the George Washington left Charleston, South Carolina, with a complement of nuclear-armed Polaris missiles.
The Soviet government consequently ordered Tupolev and other aircraft design bureaus to study possible dedicated anti-submarine warfare (ASW) designs. Tupolev initially designed the Tu-95PLO (protivolodochnaya oborona, or ASW), a development of the Tu-95 equipped with sonobuoys, anti-submarine mines and torpedoes. It was to carry a 9,000 kg (19,841 lb) payload with a maximum loiter time of 10.5 hours. The design was dropped, however, because it lacked a powerful radar, thermal imaging (infrared) system and magnetic anomaly detector (MAD). On 28 February 1963, the Council of Ministers (the highest executive and administrative body of the Soviet Union) issued a directive to Tupolev requiring his bureau to develop a long-range ASW aircraft.
The resultant design was named Tu-142 and had features in common with the Tu-95RT. The ventral and dorsal gun turrets were removed, as was the large dielectric radome housing the Upseh radar system, which was replaced by a thermal imaging system located in a smaller fairing. This left the tail turret with twin 23-mm AM-23 cannons, along with electronic countermeasures, as the only defensive armament. The aircraft's search-and-targeting system featured Berkut (Golden Eagle) 360° radar. A complex navigation system was integrated with the weapons targeting system. Structural differences included an airfoil change to the wing, expanding its area to 295 m2 (3,172 ft2). The area of the elevators was increased by 14%, and improved hydraulic actuators were fitted. Metal fuel tanks replaced rubber bladders. To allow the Tu-142 to operate from semi-prepared runways, the Tu-95's four-wheel main undercarriage bogies were replaced with six-wheel units; the main undercarriage fairings were also modified.
The first Tu-142 (construction number 4200) was built at the Kuibyshev Aviation Plant in Samara. It performed its first flight on 18 June 1968, with test pilot I. K. Vedernikov at the controls, taking off from Zhukovsky Airfield southeast of Moscow. Early testing indicated that the fuselage needed to be lengthened by at least 1.5 m (4.9;ft) to accommodate new combat equipment. Therefore, the second prototype (c/n 4201) joined the flight-test programme on 3 September with a 1.7-metre (5.6 ft) front fuselage stretch, a modification found on all subsequent Tu-142s. The third and final development Tu-142 entered flight test on 31 October, complete with the full equipment suite. In May 1970, the Soviet Naval Aviation (AV-MF) – the air arm of the Soviet Navy – began receiving production Tu-142s for operational trials.
During early operations, the Tu-142 revealed several shortcomings. The aircraft's rough-field capability was found to be of limited use, so the two six-wheel bogies used on the first 12 of 36 aircraft were replaced with four-wheel reinforced bogies from the Tu-114 airliner; consequently, the wheel-wells in the engine nacelle were made slimmer. These changes, along with the deletion of the thermal imaging system and parts of the electronic countermeasure (ECM) equipment, reduced the empty weight by 4,000 kg (8,818 lb). The modified aircraft also introduced a crew rest area for long-duration missions, and was assigned the codename ("Bear F" Mod 1); from 1968 to 1972 the Kuibyshev Plant produced a total of 18 Tu-142s.
In the early 1970s, production of Tu-142s was switched to the Taganrog Machinery Plant near the Black Sea. It has been speculated that the change to the idle plant was to give employment to the workers there. The move required many improvements to the plant and the surrounding area, including the establishment of new assembly shops, the installation of new machinery and tooling, the re-training of the workforce, and the building of a new airfield. Preparation took place until 1975, when production of the first Tu-142 began. The Tu-142s built by Taganrog incorporated the changes found on the last of the Kuibyshev aircraft. Differences included a 30-centimetre (12 in) stretch to the front fuselage and a redesigned cockpit. Additional changes included new two-axle main undercarriage bogies. This version was given the factory designation Tu-142M, which was not adopted by the Soviet Navy; NATO codenamed it "Bear-F" Mod 2.
As the 1970s progressed, silencing technology in submarines rendered acoustic-band sonobuoys and trigger devices ineffective. During 1961 and 1962, the Soviet Union conducted research and development into an explosive sound system (ESS) – used to locate deep-diving submarines – under the name Udar (Blow). In 1965, work had started on sonobuoy systems using ESS to be integrated with the Berkut radar. The programme was postponed when one of the aircraft intended to carry it, the Ilyushin Il-38, was found to be incompatible. The developments instead resulted in the Udar-75, which was featured in a new search and targeting system (STS) of the Taganrog-built Tu-142Ms.
A new target acquisition system dubbed Korshun-K, the cornerstone of which was the Korshun (Kite) radar, was installed on all subsequent Tu-142s. This system was used for detecting surfaced and submerged submarines, communicating with other ASW aircraft and ground bases, and performing navigational and tactical tasks. The first three Tu-142Ms were the first aircraft to be equipped with this system, and thus were redesignated Tu-142MK ("Bear F" Mod. 3). It was the first Tu-142 to feature a MAD, its MMS-106 Ladoga system being mounted in an aft-facing fairing atop the vertical stabiliser. The first of three Tu-142MKs that underwent Stage A of the trials programme made its first flight on 4 November 1975; despite the dismal performance figures, a production go-ahead was given. Stage B, conducted during April–October 1978, found that the aircraft's avionics were extremely unreliable; like Stage A, these problems were apparently ignored when a directive issued on 19 November 1980 cleared the Tu-142MK for operational service.
Even as the Tu-142MK entered service, its Korshun-K STS was already becoming obsolete. Work began on yet another improved Tu-142, resulting in the Tu-142MZ ("Bear F" Mod. 4) with the Korshun-KN-N STS. This consisted of Nashatyr-Nefrit (Ammonia/Jade) ASW avionics, which included the Zarechye sonar system. As well as the RGB-1A and RGB-2 buoys of the Berkut, the Tu-142MZ was compatible with the RGB-16 and RGB-26 buoys. When working with the ASW avionics, these buoys provided 50% greater coverage. The Kuznetsov NK-12MV were replaced by the more-powerful NK-12MP engines, and for the first time, the Tu-142 had an independent engine-starting capability with the addition of the TA-12 auxiliary power unit. This variant was distinguished from earlier "Bear Fs" by the chin fairings housing several antennas.
The flight test programme started in 1985 with the maiden flight of a converted Tu-142M fitted with the advanced avionics; state acceptance trials began within two years. Test results proved excellent, as the aircraft successfully tracked nuclear-powered submarines of the Northern and Pacific Fleets. The aircraft became operational with Russian Naval Aviation (AV-MP) in 1993. The last Tu-142MZ rolled off the Taganrog production line the following year, bringing an end to a 26-year production run during which 100 Tu-142s were produced.
A communications variant designated Tu-142MR ("Bear J") was the last production version of the Tu-142. It was tasked with long-range communications duties with Soviet ballistic missile submarines, a role similar to that of the Boeing E-6 Mercury. The Tu-142MR differed from the ASW Tu-142s in having less-sophisticated avionics, but had a long trailing wire radio aerial to relay messages to submerged Soviet submarines in times of nuclear war. This was amongst the many distinctive features of the Tu-142MR that allows it to communicate with satellites, airborne and ground-based command posts, and submarines. The aircraft replaced the Ilyushin Il-80 in the airborne command and control role. Tu-142s are currently operated by the 76th Naval Aviation Regiment from Kipelovo. Other developments of the Tu-142 include the one-off Tu-142MRT maritime reconnaissance variant, and the unbuilt Tu-142MS missile-carrying variant.