Bears and Blackjacks Are Back. What Next?
Alexander Stukalin, Kommersant Publishing House
They are coming
Three years ago Russian strategic bombers resumed their regular patrols off the coast of the United States, Canada and the UK. On August 17, 2007, as many as 17 long-range aircraft took off from the airfields in Olenegorsk, Vorkuta, Monchegorsk, Tiksi, Anadyr, Engels and Shaykovka. They clocked in a combined 165 flight hours that day. Each pair of the supersonic Tu-160 Blackjacks and the turboprop Tu 95MS Bear-H bombers headed for its own patrol area in the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Naturally, all that activity did not go unnoticed. Norway, for instance, reported that over a period of 14 hours, 11 Russian planes had appeared near its western borders. ‘’We haven’t seen that kind of activity in a very long time. Not since the early 1990s. It was quite impressive to see,” Brig. Gen. Ole Asak, chief of the Norwegian Joint Air Operations Center, said in an interview with the Associated Press news agency. In the United States it was reported that a pair of Tu-95MS bombers had approached the island of Guam, for the first time since the end of the Cold War.
Russia’s explanation was not long in coming. President Vladimir Putin, who observed the ‘Peaceful Mission’ – 2007 military exercise on that day, outlined the Kremlin’s official line right at the Chebarkul training range. “In 1992, Russia unilaterally suspended its long-range strategic aviation patrols,” Putin said. “Unfortunately, not everybody followed our example, and other countries have carried on with their own strategic aviation patrols. That poses certain problems for Russia’s security. That is why the decision has been made to resume Russian strategic aviation patrols on a permanent basis.”
It was just a matter of time
The Russian president did not specify whose strategic aviation was posing a problem for Russia’s security, and how. But the Kremlin’s decision, and the sharp rise in the activity of Russian strategic aviation, was not unexpected. In fact, it was quite predictable, given all the trends in the previous years. The former commander of the Russian Air Force, Gen Anatoliy Kornukov, listed the resumption of patrols “in combat-designated areas” as one of his key achievements back in 2002. And in 2006 his successor, Army General Vladimir Mikhaylov, was musing about “resuming patrols in parts of the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans”.
Both generals had good reasons to make such predictions. Suffice is to recall that back in the summer of 1999, during the West-99 strategic command staff exercise, two Tu-160 bombers of the 121st Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment (TBAP) took off from the Engels airbase for a 12 hour flight to the GIUK gap in the Atlantic. In the autumn of the same year, a pair of Tu-95MS aircraft of the 182nd TBAP based in Ukrainka conducted a one-off patrol off the Aleut Islands. The Western military should have taken notice: the sharp drop in the activity of Russian strategic aviation, which had started in 1992, had essentially come to an end as early as 1998.
The traditional explanation for that drop in Russia itself is that the new democratic government and the bogeyman Yeltsin did not care about military aviation and forced it to survive on a bare pittance. But things aren’t that simple.
As a matter of fact, Russia had almost no modern strategic aviation left after the collapse of the Soviet Union, apart from the twenty Tu-95MS bombers of the 182nd TBAP in Mozdok. In 1992, Moscow had yet to claw back the forty Tu-95MS bombers that had been left in Kazakhstan after the republic’s independence. It then had to retrain the pilots, who had only had experience with the older Tu-95K version. And it was only just beginning to form a new Tu-160 regiment in Engels. However, Russia’s first simultaneous launches of two air-launched cruise missiles by a pair of Tu-160 bombers came as early as October 1992. In 1996 crews of the Tu-95MS bombers of the 79th TBAP (Ukrainka airbase) and the 182nd TBAP also commenced practical missile launches.* The number of launches was rising every year. In 2000-2007, the 37th Air Army of the Supreme Command (which incorporated all Russian long-range aviation in 1998) was making an average of 10 missile launches every year.
At the same time Russian strategic aviation pilots were resurrecting the largely lost skill of aerial refueling using the Il-78 Midas aerial refueling tankers. In the spring of 1995, aerial refueling was performed by a Russian Tu 95MS bomber flying non-stop along the Ukrainka-Anadyr-Northern Ocean-Engels route. The following year, crews of the 182nd TBAP also resumed aerial refueling. The Tu-160 pilots had to learn that skill from scratch. In the former Soviet Union the maneuver was performed only a few times in 1987 by elite test pilots. The first routine daytime aerial refueling of a pair of Tu-160 bombers of the 121st TBAP was performed in 2002. The first night-time refueling followed in 2003. At about the same time Russian strategic aviation resumed the regular use of the northern staging airfields. In 2000, after a 10-year pause, the 182nd Regiment (which had already been transferred to Ukrainka) resumed the use of the Tiksi airbase for flights to the North Pole. In 2001, crews of the 184th Regiment (which was relocated back to Engels in 2000) began making use of the operational airfield in Vorkuta.
In 1999-2000 the 37th Air Army received three Tu-95MS aircraft and eight Tu-160 bombers, which had been sitting on the airfields in Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union. One new Tu-160 bomber was delivered by the manufacturer, the Kazan Aviation Plant (KAPO). That completed the formation of the Russian strategic aviation fleet – no new aircraft have entered service since then. Also in 2000 the fuel quotas allocated to the strategic aviation fleet for patrol flights began to increase. The frequency of such flights grew accordingly, and the bombers started venturing beyond the Russian and CIS borders** with increasing regularity. In 2001 and 2002, pairs of Tu-160 bombers conducted another two patrol flights off the UK coast. In May 2003, two Tu-160 bombers and four Tu-96MS aircraft of the 184th Regiment tested the limits of their range, flying more than 10,000 km in over 12 hours on a training mission over Indian Ocean. In August of the same year a pair of Tu-160 bombers and several Tu-96MS aircraft took off from several airfields in the Far East and conducted patrol flights over a large area from the Arctic Ocean and the Chukchi Peninsula along the coast of Canada and on to the Aleut Islands in the Sea of Japan.
Flights to the coasts of the United States, Canada, the UK and Norway continued in the following three years. In 2006 the total number of long-range patrol missions surpassed 100. The vast majority of them stayed close to the Russian territory. But in many cases several planes would take off simultaneously from several airfields and head in several different directions. For example, in the autumn of 2006 a pair of Tu-160 and another pair of Tu-95MS took off from the Engels airfield and conducted a 13-hour patrol over the Atlantic, with one aerial refueling. Almost simultaneously, other planes conducted live firing exercises over the Pemboy training range in the north. Meanwhile, several Tu-95MS bombers took off from the Ukrainka airbase in the east of the country. Some of them headed for the Aleut Islands in the Pacific, while others launched two missiles over the northern training range of Khalmer-Yurt. In March 2007 two Tu-95MS bombers of the 184th Regiment flew to the north on a mission that included two aerial refuelings – one near Kotlas, another near Engels. And in July, Russia essentially conducted a somewhat truncated dress rehearsal of a triumphal return of its bombers to “world politics”. Pairs of Tu-160 and Tu-95MS bombers took off from Vorkuta and flew towards Norway, then on to Denmark, the UK and Iceland. Another two Tu-160 bombers took the Engels-North Pole-Baykal route, and several Tu-95MS planes from the Ukrainka airbase flew along their usual routes over the Pacific Ocean. After that flurry of activity, the appearance in August 2007 of 11 Russian long-range bombers off the coast of Norway hardly came as any surprise.
According to official reports by the 37th Air Army command, a total of 70 long-range patrols “to various parts of the globe” were conducted in 2007. Their average duration was 12-14 hours. In 2008, the number of such patrols had reached 40 by April 5 and 50 by August 5. During the rest of the year, only 15 more patrols were conducted, for a total of 65, with 662 flight-hours clocked in and 310 tonnes of fuel transferred during aerial refueling. These long-range flights had substantially boosted the average number of flight hours clocked in by the Russian Air Force pilots: from 30-40 hours in 2005-2006 to around 80 hours in 2007 and 100 hours in 2008.
According to the data released into the public domain (and for some reason the Air Force continues to be fairly secretive with this information), the typical long-range patrol flight lasts 12 hours without aerial refueling, or 15-20 hours with one refueling. The most common destinations (excluding the exotic flight of a pair of Tu-160 bombers to Venezuela in September 2008) remain unchanged since the Soviet times. Most of the time the Russian heavy bombers fly past Scandinavia towards the UK and Iceland and on to the North Atlantic, or via the Arctic towards Alaska and Canada, then on to the Pacific (including the Aleut Islands) and the Sea of Japan. Russia has two heavy bomber regiments stationed in the west of the country (armed with the Tu-160 and Tu-95MS aircraft) and another two in the east (both armed with the Tu-95MS bombers). The number of eastward and westward bound flights is roughly the same. That is confirmed by reports of Russian aircraft being intercepted by fighter aviation of the respective countries. Given that each patrol is usually conducted by a pair of bombers, the figures for 2007 and 2008 translate into 30-35 patrol missions by pairs of bombers per year. The US NORAD Command reported 18 incidents in which Russian bombers were intercepted in 2007, 12 in 2008 and 17 in 2009.
In 2009-2010, Russian strategic aviation set several records for the duration and range of patrol flights along the so-called “Big Circle” route. The latest two records were set earlier this year. In June 2010, a pair of Tu-160 bombers spent about 24 hours in the air and covered 18,000 km along the route of the Arctic-Bering Strait-Alaskan coast-Japanese Islands-Russia’s southern borders-Engels. They were refueled in the air twice, over the Laptev Sea and near Komsomolsk-upon-Amur. In July 2010, a pair of Tu-95MS took off from Ukrainka and flew around the entire perimeter of the Russian borders and the adjacent seas. The flight lasted 42 hours and 17 minutes, covering a distance of about 30,000 km.
Another recent record was set in 2008, during the “Stability-2008” strategic command staff exercise, when a Tu 95MS bomber launched its full payload of six cruise missiles over the Pemboy training range in the north. In the former Soviet Union, such a volley missile launch was conducted in 1984 over the Sary-Shagan range as part of a joint exercise of the Soviet Air Force and Air Defense. Apart from the missiles, the Tu-95MS bombers are armed with 23mm guns. Their crews continue to train for defending against fighter jets using those guns. According to official reports of the 37th Air Army command, 35 tactical air battles were conducted during the exercises in 2008, and another 64 tactical firing practices with air targets.
The Russian Air Force has been using MiG-31 Foxbat interceptors, Su-27 Flanker fighters and A-50 Mainstay AEW aircraft as escorts for the long-range bombers in 2008-2010. New elements of the long-range patrols that have been introduced over the past three years include coordination with the Russian Navy and naval aviation. In February 2008 a pair of Tu-160 bombers took off for a maximum-range patrol mission over the Atlantic (towards the Hebrides and the Lofoten Islands), during which they coordinated their mission with a Northern Fleet strike group led by the Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov aircraft carrier and were escorted by six Su-33 carrier-based fighters. On several occasions pairs of Tu-160 bombers took off for patrols over the Atlantic simultaneously with the Tu-142M Bear-F long-range anti-submarine aircraft of the Northern Fleet aviation (Kipelovo airbase) as part of a common training scenario.
Several Tu-95MS aircraft were involved in a tactical exercise of the 37th Air Army in the Pacific in February 2008. Two of the bombers flew over the USS Nimitz, forcing the Americans to launch four F/A-18 carrier-based interceptors. Washington later said that one of the Russian planes had conducted a low-altitude fly-by around the American aircraft carrier despite the interceptors. At about the same time, another pair of Tu-95MS bombers was intercepted by Japanese F-15J fighters. Tokyo later said the Russian planes had crossed into Japanese airspace near the Izu archipelago.
The activity of Russian strategic aviation near the borders of other countries in 2007-2010 triggered an angry diplomatic and political response by the respective parliaments, political parties and several officials - some of them fairly senior. But on the whole, they caused no major scandals. Attempts by some media outlets to portray the bomber patrol missions as an act of aggression were soon dampened by official statements saying that there were no violations of international borders, that the Russians were not showing any obvious signs of aggression, and that all their patrol missions were being kept in check. But the patrols did cause a few unpleasant surprises for the Western military and their governments, the fly-by around the USS Nimitz being one of them. Another recent incident came on August 24-25, when a pair of Tu-95MS bombers unexpectedly showed up about 30 miles off the Canadian border (near Inuvik, Northwest Territories). Interestingly, the Russian MoD had officially announced to the media shortly before the incident that its Tu-95MS aircraft would be heading eastwards for a long-range patrol, but the designated patrol area was the Aleut Islands. It therefore remains unclear whether it was the same pair of bombers. Theoretically this is possible, given that the duration of their mission was later said to have been 16 hours, with one aerial refueling. Alternatively, there could have been two different pairs of bombers, one heading for the Aleut Islands and another for the Canadian border, probably after taking off from the Ukrainka airbase.
Incidents like these have lent credence to those in the West who say that the Russian threat is growing and needs to be countered. But these claims fail to take into account the actual state of affairs in Russia. A lot can be said about the political expediency – or lack thereof – of sending Russian strategic bombers to the borders of the countries which are no longer considered to be Russia’s enemies. One can also argue about how comfortably these bomber patrols sit with Russia’s own declarations of a “reset” in its relations with the United States. But what is beyond any doubt is that there will be no further growth in the activity of the Russian Tu-160 and Tu-95MS bombers. They should not be seen as a growing threat. Russia’s strategic aviation has already reached the limit of its capabilities. Any further improvement of these capabilities is being held back by a number of very serious problems which are, to all intents and purposes, beyond Russia’s ability to fix.
No aerial refueling tankers
The most serious problem that affects the operational capabilities of Russian strategic aviation is the shortage of aerial refueling tankers. That shortage puts a strict limit on the number of patrol missions per year and on the number of bombers that can be involved in each individual mission. The 37th Air Army command has stated on several occasions that in order to be fully effective, the Russian strategic aviation fleet needs to have a 1:1 ratio between the bombers and the tankers. In other words, there should be a regiment of aerial refueling tankers for each regiment of heavy bombers. As of 2009, Russia had 78 operational heavy bombers (15 Tu-160 and 63 Tu-95MS aircraft in four regiments) and only 20 aerial refueling tankers (eight Il-78 and 12 Il-78M aircraft, all made before 1994) of the 203rd Air Tanker Aviation Regiment (APSZ). The technical state of these planes leaves much to be desired. When the 203rd APSZ Regiment was being relocated from Engels to the Dyagilevo airbase near Ryazan, only 13 of its 20 aircraft were airworthy. That proportion has increased lately, but some of the planes are always grounded for repairs, maintenance or refitting to extend their service life.
The 203rd APSZ is the only tanker regiment in the entire Russian Air Force. For that reason, some of its planes are often diverted for other uses, such as test flights and training missions involving front-line, fighter and naval aviation. At the very peak of the crisis in the Russian Air Force, which came in the mid-1990s, the number of the Tu-95MS missions that involved aerial refueling was in the single digits. But the tankers of the 203rd APSZ were quite busy refueling other types of aircraft. They performed 102 refueling missions in 1995 and more than 200 in 1996. In 2002-2003 an average aerial refueling tanker pilot had clocked in more than three times as many flight hours as an average bomber pilot. In recent years, the 203rd APSZ has been even busier. In 2010, Il-78 tankers were involved in a large number of tactical aviation exercises and training missions. These missions involved refueling Su-34 Fullback, Su-30 Flanker and Su-24M Fencer strike aircraft based at the Lipetsk airbase, Su-24M aircraft from the airbases in Voronezh, Morozovsk and Khurba, and Tu-142M long-range anti-submarine aircraft of the Naval Aviation squadron in Kipelovo. In this long line for aerial refueling services, strategic aviation usually comes last. Figures released to the public domain indicate that only two to four Il-78 tankers are usually involved in long-range strategic aviation missions. Only on one occasion, during the large exercise in February 2008, as many as eight tankers were taking part. Another thing to consider is that such heavy use of all the available Russian aerial refueling tankers brings the end of their service lives so much nearer – and there are no plans at the moment to buy new ones.
Nothing in the pipeline
The strategic bomber regiments are facing the same problem, now that their planes spend more time in the air. All the Russian Tu-95MS bombers were made before 1994. The Tu-160 aircraft entered service over the period of 1986-2007. Speaking shortly after his appointment in 2002, the commander of the 37th Air Army, Maj. Gen. Igor Khvorov said that the Tu-95MS, Tu-160 and Il-78 fleets “can stay in the air at least until 2015”. It was also said that the bombers would be upgraded to extend their service life and to arm them with new high-precision non-nuclear weapons. But later on, Gen. Khvorov’s successors, as well as successive commanders of the entire Russian Air Force, changed their tune. They said the existing planes could serve for another 40 or 50 years, and stopped making promises about massive upgrade programs. The number of bombers that have actually been upgraded is in the single digits – these planes are essentially prototypes. For the Tu-160 aircraft, the actual term “upgrade” has been phased out in favor of “restorative maintenance”, which is performed on just one or two planes each year by the manufacturer in Kazan. For the Tu-95MS bombers, the new word is “modernization”. Both of these new terms essentially boil down to routine repairs and replacement of some components in the hope that one day the bombers will receive proper upgrades, including new weapons and avionics, especially targeting and navigation systems.
Meanwhile, analysis of the bomber fleet maintenance contracts announced by the MoD in 2007-2010 points to several worrying trends. Some of the Tu-160 planes (including one made in 1999) have developed cracks in the integral tank, and there is extensive corrosion damage in the leading-edge wing assembly. Some elements of the control systems require serious repairs to extend their service life, as do the struts of the main landing gear. The Tu-95MS fleet has also developed problems with the integral tanks, which need to be repaired or replaced entirely. The structure of the wing needs to be reinforced across the whole fleet.
Another serious problem for both fleets is the engines, which are no longer in production. The service life of the Kuznetsov NK-32 turbofan engines (Tu-160) has now been extended to 21 years, and of the Kuznetsov NK-12MP turboprop engines (Tu-95MS) to 24 years. Analysis of the repair contracts announced by the MoD suggests that the engines are a much bigger headache than the rest of the planes. The NK-32 engines has serious issues with the blades, as well as with its numerous pumps, valves and filters. Apart from these ailments, which are typical for this model, the engines show increased vibration and consumption of oil; their rotors are out of balance, and their thrust vector guidance systems are failing or performing outside specification. All of this shows that the NK-32 engines are not going to last forever. In fact, this particular model suffers from numerous inherent weaknesses. The engine was allowed to enter service with the Air Force after the first stage of official trials; the problems identified during that first stage were never fixed. If Russia wants to keep the frequency of its long-range bomber patrol missions at the levels seen in 2007-2009, it will have to spend more and more on repairs and maintenance for the planes and especially their engines. Otherwise it risks losing the planes and their crews. There have already been several wake-up calls. In 2002 one of the engines of a Tu-95MS bomber belonging to the 184th TBAP cathes fire in mid-flight, but the crew managed to land the plane at its home airfield. In 2003, a Tu-160 aircraft made in 1992 crashed after its main integral tank disintegrated. Its entire crew was killed.
The risk of one of the long-range bombers crashing is another factor that has seriously affected Russia’s plans for the use of its strategic aviation fleet. If a plane goes down somewhere far away from the homeland, there is next to no chance of a successful rescue mission. Commanders of the 37th Air Army have often complained that there are not enough MSK rescue suits or unique Baklan diving suits that every Tu-160 crew member is supposed to have – but even that is not the main problem. The Soviet Union could afford to equip all the bomber crews with all the necessary rescue gear. But when Soviet planes (including Tu-95 and An-22 aircraft) went down somewhere far out in the ocean, their crews were always lost. The latest incident involved a Tu-142MZ long-range anti-submarine aircraft of the Pacific Fleet Aviation, which was lost in the Tatar Strait in November 2009, only 20km away from the shore. None of its 11 crew members survived. The Tu-142MZ model has the same airframe and engines as the Tu-95MS bomber. Even if the crew (four people for Tu-160 and seven for Tu-95MS) survive the actual crash somewhere far in the Arctic, Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, they cannot expect swift rescue by the Russian Air Force or Navy. These services have never had the technical means or the overall capability to pull off such a rescue. The loss of even a single plane would lead to a long pause in long-range patrols until the causes are established – which is next to impossible to do with any degree of certainty when the plane and its crew disappear without a trace. Senior commanders would then be extremely cautious about ordering a resumption of such patrols.
It is therefore safe to assert that the Russian strategic aviation has restored only a small fraction of the capability once possessed by the Soviet Air Force. In Soviet times, Moscow could afford to send up to a squadron of Tu-95 bombers to the Atlantic or the US shores, and up to a whole regiment to the Soviet sector of the Arctic. It took Russia almost a whole decade to resume the small-scale and infrequent long-range patrol missions – and these patrols are in fact the limit of Moscow’s current capabilities. Any further progress will require a very radical increase in the Air Force funding and procurement programs.
* The 182nd Regiment went through three relocations (Mozdok to Engels to Mozdok and finally back to Engels) in 1992-1994 due to the instability in the North Caucasus.
** On several occasions over the past decade the Russian strategic bombers landed at airbases in Belarus; they also took part in CIS air defense exercises.