The design bureau led by Andrei Tupolev designed the Soviet Union's first intercontinental bomber, the 1949 Tu-85, a scaled up version of the Tu-4, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress copy.
A new requirement was issued to both Tupolev and Myasishchev design bureaus in 1950: the proposed bomber had to have an un-refueled range of 8,000 km (4,970 mi)—far enough to threaten key targets in the United States. Other goals included the ability to carry an 11,000 kg (12.1 ton) load over the target.
The big problem for Tupolev was the engine choice: the Tu-4 showed that piston engines were not powerful enough to fulfill that role, while the fuel-hungry AM-3 jet engines of the proposed T-4 intercontinental jet bomber did not provide adequate range. Turboprops offered more power than the piston engines and better range than jets available for the new bomber's development at the time, while offering a top speed in between these two alternative choices.
Tupolev's proposal was selected and Tu-95 development was officially approved by the government on 11 July 1951. It featured four Kuznetsov coupled turboprops, each fitted with two contra-rotating propellers of four blades each, producing a nominal 8,948 kW (12,000 eshp) power rating. The then-advanced engine was designed by a German team of ex-Junkers prisoner-engineers under Ferdinand Brandner. In contrast, the fuselage was conventional: a mid-wing cantilever monoplane with 35 degrees of sweep, an angle which ensured the main wing spar passed through the fuselage in front of the bomb bay. Retractable tricycle landing gear was fitted, with all three gear strut units retracting rearwards, with the main gear units retracting rearwards into extensions of the inner engine nacelles.
The Tu-95/I, with 2TV-2F engines, first flew in November 1952 with test pilot Alexey Perelet at the controls. After six months of test flights this aircraft suffered a propeller gearbox failure and crashed, killing Perelet. The second aircraft, Tu-95/II featured four of the 12,000 ehp Kuznetsov NK-12 turboprops which proved more reliable than the coupled 2TV-2F. After a successful flight testing phase, series production of the Tu-95 started in January 1956.
For a long time, the Tu-95 was known to U.S./NATO intelligence as the Tu-20. While this was the original Soviet Air Force designation for the aircraft, by the time it was being supplied to operational units it was already better known under the Tu-95 designation used internally by Tupolev, and the Tu-20 designation quickly fell out of use in the USSR. Since the Tu-20 designation was used on many documents acquired by U.S. intelligence agents, the name continued to be used outside the Soviet Union.
Initially the United States Department of Defense evaluated the Tu-95 as having a maximum speed of 644 km/h (400 mph) with a range of 12,500 km (7,800 mi). These numbers had to be revised upward numerous times.
Like its American counterpart, the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, the Tu-95 has continued to operate in the Russian Air Force while several subsequent iterations of bomber design have come and gone. Part of the reason for this longevity was its suitability, like the B-52, for modification to different missions. Whereas the Tu-95 was originally intended to drop free-falling nuclear weapons, it was subsequently modified to perform a wide range of roles, such as the deployment of cruise missiles, maritime patrol (Tu-142), and even civilian airliner (Tu-114). An AWACS platform (Tu-126) was developed from the Tu-114. An icon of the Cold War, the Tu-95 has served not only as a weapons platform but as a symbol of Soviet and later Russian national prestige. Russia’s air force has received the first examples of a number of modernised strategic bombers Tu-95MSs following upgrade work. Enhancements have been confined to the bomber’s electronic weapons and targeting systems.