Warplanes: Cold Warriors Load Up

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October 7,2008:  For the first time in over twenty years, Russia is sending its heavy bombers into training exercises with full loads of bombs and missiles. Russia has some 200 heavy bombers (about 50 operational Tu-95s, 140 Tu-22Ms and sixteen Tu-160s). The Tu-95s and Tu-160s can, with in-flight refueling, reach any place on the planet. The 180 ton Tu-95 can carry 12 tons of bombs (or six Kh-55 cruise missiles), while the 267 ton Tu-160 can carry 20 tons of bombs (or 12 Kh-55s). The 112 ton Tu-22M can carry 24 tons of weapons (and is technically a medium range bomber, even though it can refuel in the air.).

During these training exercises, at least one Tu-160 will fire all its Kh-55 missiles. The last time this was done was in 1984. Such an exercises was not repeated because of the expense. The Kh-55s cost several million dollars each. But Russia is upgrading its Tu-160s with better electronics, and improved mechanical systems. It will take several years to upgrade all of these aircraft. However only 35 were built, and only 18 of those are still around. The Russians want to see if all these improvements will work in combat.

The Tu-160 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, with a range of 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.

Two years ago, the Russians resumed long range military flights over the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans. Over a hundred of these flights have been carried since then, mainly by Tu-95MS and Tu-160 heavy bombers. Two Tu-160s recently flew to Venezuela and back. Russia has also increased the number of heavy bomber crews it is training, with over fifty new crews entering service in 2006.

Over the last two years, Russia has provided each of its Tu-160 and Tu-95 heavy bombers with a dozen Kh-555 cruise missiles. These weapons 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. There are still dozens of the older Kh-55 versions of the missile available, and these may be the ones to be fired in the Tu-160 training exercise.

 


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