July 13, 2012:
Japan recently revealed that on June 29th, several of their F-15 fighters were sent up to intercept four Russian Tu-22 bombers. The Japanese F-15 pilots described the Russian aircraft as carrying air-to-surface missiles. The Japanese Air Force did not release any pictures and some Japanese media reported that the missiles were of the anti-ship variety. Russia has several airborne anti-ship missiles, most of them modified versions of anti-ship missiles usually carried by ships or by trucks (for coast defense). The appearance of Russian heavy bombers near Japanese air space, carrying large air-to-surface missiles, is increasingly common. To Japan it's all about Russia rejecting Japanese efforts to regain possession of the Kurile Islands (seized by Russia after World War II). In the 1990s, Russian air power was notably absent from the seas surrounding Japan. But in the last decade that has changed.
The Tu-22 is a 1970s design. It's a 126 ton, twin-engine, swing wing aircraft with a crew of four (two pilots, a bombardier, and defensive systems operator). Originally it had a 23mm cannon mounted in a tail turret. It normally carries 12 tons of bombs and missiles (including up to four large missiles) but can carry 24 tons over shorter distances. Max speed is 2,300 kilometers an hour and combat radius is 2,400 kilometers. Originally equipped for aerial refueling this capability was removed in the early 1980s to comply with the SALT treaty (which reduced U.S. and Russian nuclear capabilities). The Tu-22M was roughly equivalent to the 45 ton FB-111. Russia hopes to have a new bomber design in service by 2030, to replace the aging Tu-22M3Ms.
Russia is upgrading 30 of its Tu-22M3 bombers to the Tu-22M3M standard. The first of the M3M models recently entered service. This new version has improved electronics, is able to deliver smart bombs, and has in-flight refueling capabilities restored. Other components of upgraded aircraft were refurbished as needed. This is expected to keep these 30 Tu-22M3Ms in service for another decade or more. All 30 upgrades will not be completed until the end of the decade.
A decade ago Russia had over a hundred Tu-22M3 "Backfire" bombers in service. Or so it was claimed, as these aircraft didn't fly much. When the Cold War ended in 1991, over 300 were still in service. About 500 were produced between 1969 and 1993. The Tu-22M saw combat in Afghanistan, where it carpet bombed areas thought to contain Afghan rebels during the 1980s. Some were also used in the 2008 war with Georgia. Efforts to find export customers failed.
Russia still has some Cold War era Kh-55 (AS-15) cruise missiles available for use by these heavy bombers. Five years ago an upgrade, the Kh-555, appeared. This missile is six meters (19.8 feet) long, weighs 1.6 tons, and has a range of 3,000 kilometers. The 364 kg (800 pound) conventional warhead appears to be a cluster bomb type (carrying bomblets). The missile uses inertial and satellite supplied guidance and can hit within six meters of its aiming point. There was also a nuclear version but this does not appear to be in regular service.
Currently, Tu-160 and Tu-95MS heavy bombers normally carry a dozen Kh-555 cruise missiles each. The Tu-22M can carry four of them. Recent Russian air exercises off northern Japan put 400 cruise missiles, aimed south and able to hit anywhere in the Japanese islands, in the air, hanging from bombers flying close to Japan. Russia was sending a message.