Warplanes: Russia Turns To The Heavies


October 19, 2022: Russia has the second largest (after the United States) fleet of 123 heavy bombers. These include fifteen 275-ton Tu-160s, 66 126-ton Tu-22M3 and 42 propeller-driven 188-ton Tu-95MS. Russia has used these bombers sparingly against Ukraine this year, despite the unique capabilities of these aircraft. All can carry lots of unguided bombs and are the only aircraft that can carry some models of anti-ship and cruise missiles as well as the few extremely heavy unguided bombs. There are two reasons for not using these bombers decisively (as in frequently) against Ukrainian forces. The main reason is money. There has been less cash for the defense budget since 2014, when Ukraine sanctions began. Sanctions intensified in 2022. This meant less money to maintain heavy bombers, which cost up to $60,000 an hour to fly. There’s no money for major repairs and replacing a destroyed heavy bomber is not going to happen. Because of that Russia has not used the heavy bombers inside Ukraine except in a few instances when there were no nearby Ukrainian air defense systems. Since February Ukraine has managed to prevent Russia from gaining air supremacy. This was partly due to the Russian EW (Electronic Warfare) effort being less formidable than Ukraine expected. That means only Russian fighter-bombers operate over Ukraine, and not that frequently because they are often shot down and carry far fewer bombs than the heavies. If the heavies were used over Ukraine regularly there would be major damage done to Ukrainian military capabilities despite all the weapons sent by NATO nations.

While less capable than American heavy bombers, which have better defensive electronics and all the guided bombs and missiles they need, the Russian heavy bombers are remarkably capable because of upgrades and less frequent peace-time use.

The Tu-160 heavy bomber is roughly equivalent to the U.S. B-1. It is the most recent heavy bomber, and was selected in 1977 as the answer to the American B-1A, which was still in development. The U.S. cancelled its B-1A in 1977 because it was too expensive and work on the new B-2 stealth bomber was underway. In 1981, problems with the B-2 caused revival of the B-1 as the less expensive (costly features were removed) 216-ton B-1B model. A hundred of these were built and the last of these are being retired by 2024.

Russia has not been so quick to cancel heavy bomber projects and made that work by implementing regular upgrades whenever they could afford it. When the Cold War ended in 1991, the heavy bombers were an early victim of the diminished defense budget. Many heavy bombers stations in areas that became new nations belonged to those new nations. These bombers were not needed by their new owners and the ones still in Russia could not be maintained. Since the late 1990s Russia has been refurbishing their heavy bomber fleet. Priority was given to the Tu-160s, as these were able to carry a dozen of the new Kh-101 cruise missiles each, or lots of smart bombs. Entering service in 1984, the Tu-160 is the most modern bomber the Russians have. There are also 63 Tu-95MS strategic bombers (a 1950s design prop-jet), and 117 Tu-22M3 (a smaller 1970s design). The Russians have not been able to upgrade their bombers as much as the U.S. has improved their 1950s era B-52s. The Russian bombers are expensive to operate, in part because the engines last less than a third as long as Western ones. The Russian heavies require larger crews. The Tu-160 had the same tortured, and expensive, development as the American B-1. Because of the expense, only 36 (of 100 planned) Tu-160s were built.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, 19 of those were in Ukraine, which took possession, but did nothing with them. Left outdoors, the Tu-160s rusted away, but in 2000 eight of the remaining Ukrainian Tu-160s, plus 600 missiles used by Tu-160s, were sent to Russia in payment for natural gas debts. Currently 15 of the original 36 Tu-160s remain in flying order. The rest are used for spare parts. The Tu-160 is a large, swing-wing aircraft. It weighs 275 tons and can carry up to 40 tons of bombs and missiles, but usually carries nine tons, on missions of up to 14,000 kilometers. It has a crew of four and entered service in 1987.

Far more Tu-95s and Tu-22s were built during the Cold War and it was cheaper and easier to get more of these back into shape by the end of the 1990s. This was demonstrated in the Russian Far East where heavy bombers began to reappear. Russian air activity has grown enormously in 2017 after two years of declining sightings by Pacific coast neighbors. This is largely the result of more heavy bombers and maritime patrol aircraft being based on the Pacific Coast. Increased activity by American carrier task forces as well as South Korean and Japanese warships gave the Russian warplanes something to keep an eye on and they did. Russian aircraft incursions (that trigger sending up jet fighters because foreign warplanes are coming too close to your air space) were way up in this region. Japan is the most common target and at one-point annual Russian incursions surpassed China’s. The formation of a new heavy bomber division on the Pacific coast saw far more activity all over the western pacific by Tu-95MS and Tu-22M3 long-range bombers. The Tu-160s were also active after 2007, but on longer flights over the Atlantic Ocean and the Russian Arctic. Some flights were made to Cuba and Venezuela. These flights were highly publicized because Russia could not afford to make too many of them. All Russian heavies operated near or over Syria, launching guided missiles at ground targets. Tu-22M3s carried out some saturation bombing missions in Syria. In 2022 the heavies suffered their first combat losses. On October 7th two Tu-22M3s were destroyed by a Ukrainian weaponized UAV that attacked the Tu-22 base 220 kilometers north of Ukraine. Russia denied the loss but commercial satellite photos showed two damaged and burned-out Tu-22s.




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