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Tracking Bears

Dec 2, 2017
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Less than two weeks ago, we predicted that Russian TU-95 Bear bombers will stage a mission against the U.S. east coast before year’s end (if not sooner), resuming a profile that hasn’t been flown since the Cold War.

We’re standing by that forecast, because all indicators suggest that Russian bomber crews are still preparing for such a flight. According to Sky News, a Bear H flew a mission over the North Atlantic last Friday, prompting an intercept by RAF “Typhoon” fighters. It represented the first operational intercept for the Typhoon since the new fighters assumed Britain’s air defense alert mission earlier this summer. The Typhoon is replacing the RAF’s aging fleet of Tornado F3’s, which have performed the air defense mission for more than 20 years.

By our count, this is at least the second “Bear” mission flown against the U.K. so far this year. Russian bombers have also flown profiles against Norway, Alaska, and earlier this month, they passed within 300 miles of U.S. air and naval bases on Guam–their most aggressive mission in more than a decade. The sudden spike in bomber activity came after a decade of inactivity, when Russia’s Bear, TU-22M Backfire and TU-160 Blackjacks flew infrequently, the result of cutbacks in Moscow’s military budget.

But with Russia now awash in oil revenue, the Kremlin has more money for new military hardware–and increased training with existing systems. At the opening of yesterday’s Moscow Air Show (the largest since the Soviet era), President Vladimir Putin announced ambitious plans to revive the Russia military, and make aircraft production “a priority.” Aides to Mr. Putin told the U.K. Guardian that the effort may include renewed production of TU-95 and TU-160 bombers.

The Russian leader clearly understands the symbolism of bomber flights against the west, making it virtually certain that one or two Bears will stage a mission against our east coast later this year. Following a profile used during the Cold War, the Russian aircraft will cruise along the edge of U.S. airspace, prompting an intercept by Air National Guard F-15s and F-16s. The most likely destination for the TU-95s is Cuba, although a longer flight to Venezuela cannot be ruled out. After a brief stay in the Caribbean, the Russian bomber(s) will return home, following a similar route along the eastern seaboard.

To some degree, a resurrection of Russia’s strategic bomber force was to be expected–perhaps inevitable. If Moscow was serious about maintaining a strategic triad (consisting of manned bombers, land-based ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles), then a resumption of long-range training missions by Bears and Blackjacks would be necessary. And, with more oil money flowing into the national treasury, Putin finally has the to fund his bomber fleet.
However, it is worth noting that Russia’s strategic bomber force remains a shadow of its former self. Thanks to arms reduction treaties, aging airframes and limited resources after the collapse of communism, the number of Russian bombers has been significantly reduced from Cold War levels, and it’s doubtful that Putin will build more than a handful of new Bears or Blackjacks, for several reasons.
First, money for new bombers could be better spent on aircraft (and other weapons systems) that can be used by Russian forces and sold for export. Some of the weaponry currently on display in Moscow is clearly aimed at that market, including variants of the Flanker fighter, and the S-400 air defense system.
Secondly, Russia’s bomber force (though quite capable) was never the strategic equivalent of its U.S. counterpart. The bulk of Moscow’s strategic forces was always concentrated in land-based missiles, with smaller numbers of SLBMs and manned bombers. It’s a trend that remains evident today; Russia’s most important strategic program is its deployment of silo and mobile versions of the SS-27 ICBM, which will form the backbone of Moscow’s nuclear forces for decades to come. Funding for more Bears and Blackjacks will remain a lower priority, despite Mr. Putin’s promise.
Finally, the Russian design bureau responsible for building bombers (Tupolev) is also the nation’s largest builder of commercial aircraft–a market that Putin desperately wants to crack. While Tupolev has been largely idle for the past decade, Boeing and Airbus have racked up billions of dollars in aircraft orders. If Mr. Putin and Tupolev’s management team are serious about becoming a player in the commercial aircraft business, then they must devote most of their effort (and money) in that arena. And that means fewer rubles for new bombers.
However, the prospect of new Blackjacks and Bears rolling off the assembly line can’t be completely dismissed. Adding a few more airframes to the bomber fleet would be far cheaper that building and operating new ballistic missile subs–the leg of the Russian triad that has suffered the most over the past 20 years. Mr. Putin and his advisers are also aware that manned bombers are an extremely flexible option, with employment in both nuclear and conventional roles. To counter the USAF’s impressive global strike capabilities, then Russia must rebuild its own bomber force, to some degree. And, we’re seeing the early steps of that process, with a resumption of long-range training missions, and talk about building more bombers.
ADDENDUM: Arrival of the Typhoon was certainly welcomed by RAF air defense pilots. The older, Tornado air defense variant (ADV) was poorly suited by that mission, with limited climb and maneuvering capabilities. In fact, when Russian MiG-29 Fulcrums first flew to the U.K.’s Farnborough Airshow in the late 80s, Tornado ADV pilots assigned to escort them had to radio air traffic controllers, who instructed the Russians to descend to a lower altitude. The air defense Tornado was such a pig that it couldn’t climb fast enough to meet the approaching Russian fighters.
While the Typhoon is a vastly superior aircraft to the Tornado F3, its performance is roughly akin to a late-model F-15, SU-27 or Rafale. It is not the equivalent of fifth-generation fighters like the F-22 or F-35, except in terms of price. At roughly 67 million pounds per aircraft, the Typhoon is slightly cheaper than the Raptor, and about the same price as the F-35.
One more thought: with the RAF managing to get its latest fighter in an “action shot” alongside a Bear, what are the odds that an F-22 will be involved in the intercept if–and when–the TU-95s fly a mission along our east coast.

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