Here Come the Russian Bombers! Break Out the Duct Tape.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced today that his air force would resume the old Soviet practice, discontinued in 1992, of sending its strategic bombers on long-range patrols all over the world, including the edges of United States air space.
Sounds pretty ominous, especially if you are long enough in the tooth to remember ducking and covering during the Cold War: visions of “Fail Safe” and Norad and nuclear-tipped cruise missiles within easy range of American population centers and tense provocation in the skies.
But The Lede feels inclined to scratch the surface of this news a little bit, where some realities emerge that may be less Tom Clancy and more “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!”
When we talk about Russian long range strategic bombers, what have we got exactly? According to Periscope and other authoritative military-data sources, two types of aircraft make up the fleet — a subsonic turboprop known in the West as the Tu-95 Bear, and a swept-wing supersonic bomber called the Tu-160 Blackjack.
Are these fearsome, cutting-edge weapons systems?
Well, the Tu-160 is often described as a big, heavy knockoff of the American B-1, which the Carter administration gave up on in 1977 because it was too trouble-prone and costly to build and operate and not much use even when it worked right. (The Reagan administration revived it in a modified form, but never did solve the cost and utility problems.)
The Russians had terrible problems with the Tu-160, too — even when they wanted to show the thing off to a visiting American secretary of defense, they reportedly could get only three of its four engines working for the demo flight — and it appears to be a pig for fuel, just as the B-1 was. (That was one of the main reasons the Russians stopped the long-range flights in 1992: too expensive.)
The Russian Air Force probably has fewer than 20 of them, and it is any civilian’s guess how many are serviceable; Periscope cites Russian accounts from the 1980’s that it was common for 70 percent of the fleet to be grounded at any given time. The old Tu-160’s are being overhauled and modernized, and one or two new ones are supposedly now being built each year.
As for the Bears, those are more plentiful (the Russian navy and air force together may have around 60 of them now) but they are old, old, old — built mainly in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and powered by turboprop engines rather than jets. They seem to be somewhat more reliable than the Blackjacks, and were often seen flying long-range patrols during Soviet times, but they are considered fairly easy for speedier jet fighters to intercept — um, make that “escort.”
(In fairness, the American B-52 fleet is just as old, and both airplanes have repeatedly had their service lives extended with one overhaul and upgrade after another. But the Russian military has spent most of the last 15 years much harder pressed for money and technical resources than the Pentagon has.)
Both aircraft can carry gravity bombs, conventional and nuclear alike, but their more potent threat would be air-launched cruise missiles, which remove the need to actually penetrate enemy territory to mount an attack. What neither plane has is much stealth: radar and satellite surveillance systems and even ground observers will see the aircraft coming a long way away.
Another reality check: The flights actually resumed eight years ago. Periscope reports several occasions starting in 1999 when Bears and, occasionally, Blackjacks flew patrols close to Alaskan airspace or across the Norwegian Sea to Iceland and were intercepted by American or NATO fighters. A couple even flew down to Guam just last week to “exchange smiles,” in Mr. Putin’s phrase, with a welcoming committee of American fighter jets. The In From The Cold blog took that occasion to wonder whether the planes would soon be seen again off the East Coast.
Mr. Putin made his announcement today at a joint military exercise in the Urals with China and four Central Asian countries, and has clearly been on a campaign lately to reassert Russia’s status as a global power. Showing that his bombers can get to lots of remote places may enhance that image.
Or, given the spotty technical record of Russian aerospace, the added strain of the long patrols may simply multiply the opportunities for something to go badly wrong, as it did with the Russian SST that crashed at the Paris air show in 1973 (built, as it happens, by Tupolev, just like the bombers), or the MiG fighter jet that streaked more than 500 miles across Europe without its pilot (he bailed out over Poland) to crash into a house in Belgium in 1989, or perhaps the unexploded missile that fell in a Georgian farm field earlier this week.
[Thanks to several commenters for pointing out an off-target reference to the B-1’s history in earlier versions of this post. -PL]