Warplanes: Russian Heavies Return to the Skies

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September 25, 2007: After seven years of effort, Russia has revived its heavy bomber force. In the 1990s, most Russian heavy bombers were kept on the ground. But since 2001, heavy bombers have been refurbished and restored to service. This including getting some Tu-160s back from Ukraine (because half of the 36 Tu-160s built were stationed in Ukraine when the Soviet Union was dissolved, and thus belonged to Ukraine). Only about fourteen Tu-160s are still operational, plus about fifty Tu-22Ms and about the same number of Tu-95s. Exact numbers are not available on the Tu-22Ms and Tu-95s, because both of these aircraft serve other functions (reconnaissance, electronic warfare). Their ability to perform as heavy bombers depends on the current state of crew training and maintenance. Most of these aircraft are at least twenty years old, and spare parts are sometimes difficult to get. Factories had to be reopened, or new production lines established, to obtain needed parts. Increasingly, over the last six years, heavy bombers have been increasingly showing up the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic oceans, as well as the Black and Caspian seas. Some of these aircraft are firing cruise missiles, or simulating it, and practice bombing runs, during more frequent training flights.

The Tu-95MS is a propeller driven aircraft, most often used for naval reconnaissance. It's basically a 180 ton heavy bomber that can carry 15 tons of bombs and missiles. It has a combat radius of over 5,000 kilometers. Actually, its total range of 15,000 kilometers enables it to reach just about anywhere on the planet, if is uses in-flight refueling, which has become increasingly common, and the crews are getting very good at it.

The Tu-22M Serves with both the Russian Air Force and Navy. It's a 112 ton aircraft that can carry 25 tons of bombs and missiles. It has a normal combat radius of 2,500 kilometers. Not exactly a strategic bomber, as it had its in-flight refueling capability removed because of a disarmament treaty. But because Russia is so large, with air bases all over the place, the Tu-22M can show up over the Atlantic or Pacific. It's also one of the most reliable Russian bombers in service.

The Tu-160 Blackjack is very similar to the U.S. B-1, but never really lived up to its potential. Still, it is the most modern heavy bomber the Russians have. It's a 267 ton aircraft, that can carry up to 40 tons of bombs and missiles, for up to 12,000 kilometers. The aircraft can refuel in the air. It originally entered service in 1987, and was built to deliver cruise missiles. Noting the success of the B-1 in Afghanistan and Iraq with smart bombs, the Tu-160s were modified to do the same, in addition to retaining their cruise missile carrying capability.

Currently. Tu-160 and Tu-95MS heavy bombers are equipped to carry a dozen Kh-555 cruise missiles each. These missiles are upgrades of the Cold War era AS-15 nuclear cruise missile. The Kh-555 is 20 feet long, weighs 1.5 tons and has a range of 3,000 kilometers. An 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 100 meters of its aiming point. Russia says it will use these missiles to attack terrorist bases in foreign countries.

This Summer, Russian heavy bombers flew hundreds of sorties over land and water, including night aerial refueling (a tricky operation.) In terms of sheer numbers, the Russians have about as many heavy bombers in service (over a hundred) as does the United States. The American bombers are better equipped and more capable, but the Russian force is competitive.

 


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