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Russian Bombers Rehearse Nuclear Attacks Against the United States

Richard Weitz

Calling on Russian pilots to resume “combat duty,” Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Aug. 17 that his country’s strategic nuclear bombers would resume their Cold War-era practice of conducting long-range patrols “on a permanent basis.” He told reporters that “our pilots have spent too long on the ground. I know that they are happy to now have this chance to begin a new life and we wish them luck.” Although the main function of these aircraft is to conduct nuclear missile strikes against the continental United States, Putin said he hoped that other countries would show “understanding” for the Russian decision.

Perhaps to Moscow’s surprise, representatives of the Bush administration did precisely that. In Crawford, Texas, where the president was vacationing, White House spokesperson Gordon D. Johndroe told reporters that, “Militaries around the world engage in a variety of different activities.” In Washington, State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack said that Moscow’s action was not threatening since the two countries “certainly are not in the kind of posture we were with what used to be the Soviet Union.” Alluding to the age and technological backwardness of the planes, McCormack added that, “If Russia feels as though they want to take some of these old aircraft out of mothballs and get them flying again, that’s their decision.”

Some analysts might not be so sanguine. Russia’s aging equipment and Russian air crews with less comprehensive training than their American or Soviet-era counterparts make the bombers more vulnerable to mechanical problems. During the Cold War, Soviet and U.S. bombers transporting nuclear weapons sometimes crashed, leading to costly environmental restoration programs and other hazards. At present, it is unclear whether they are carrying nuclear warheads on their patrols, though Putin’s use of the term “combat duty” suggests such a possibility.

Russia’s existing strategic bomber fleet consists almost exclusively of Soviet-manufactured platforms capable of launching long-range air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) armed with nuclear warheads. The Russian Air Force currently deploys 40 Tu-95MS Bear-H long-range heavy bombers, 14 Tu-160 Blackjack modern strategic bombers, and 141 Tu-22M3 Backfire-C theater bombers. The planes can also launch nuclear-armed short-range attack missiles and drop nuclear gravity bombs as well as conventional bombs.

In January 2007, Vladimir Mikhailov, the commander-in-chief of the Russian Air Force, said Russia would commission approximately two new or modernized Tu-160 strategic bombers every three years. He added that Russia would continue to modernize the avionics and other components of the existing fleet as well as its support infrastructure. For example, the Russian Air Force has begun upgrading the Tu-160s, which have a range of over 10,000 kilometers, to deliver conventionally armed missiles or up to 40 tons of high-explosive gravity bombs as well as their typical load of 12 Kh-55 ALCMs with a range of some 3,000 kilometers.

The international community received a precursor of Putin’s Aug. 17 announcement when Russia’s strategic aviation force engaged in a major set of exercises the previous week. Over a three-day period, Russian bombers conducted 40 sorties, test launched eight cruise missiles, simulated bombing runs, and flew over the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

On Aug. 8, two Tu-95 bombers flew near the major U.S. military base on the Pacific Island of Guam for the first time since the Soviet era. At a Moscow news conference, Maj. Gen. Pavel Androsov, head of long-range military aviation, said that the planes had flown for 13 hours over neutral waters after taking off from a base near Blagoveshchensk in the Far East. At the time, the U.S. military was conducting a major military exercise of its own—Exercise Valiant Shield—on the island with the Japanese involving 30 navy ships, 275 combat aircraft, and more than 20,000 military personnel.

Androsov related that the Russians had “exchanged smiles” with American pilots who tracked them: “It has always been the tradition of our long-range aviation to fly far into the ocean, to meet [U.S.] aircraft carriers and greet [U.S. pilots] visually. Yesterday [Wednesday] we revived this tradition, and two of our young crews paid a visit to the area of the base of Guam.” U.S. Pacific Command denied that visual contact occurred, maintaining that the bombers flew no closer than 100 miles from U.S. aircraft. Pentagon spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Chito Peppler stated that, “We were prepared to intercept the planes, but they never came close enough to a U.S. ship or to the island of Guam to warrant an air-to-air intercept.”

During the 1990s, budget cutbacks forced Russia to curtail the Soviet practice of conducting regular combat patrols. According to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), however, the Russian military in recent months has undertaken more patrols in areas closer to Russian territory—in the oceans near Norway and Britain as well as over the Bering Strait separating Russia from Alaska. In July, Royal Air Force F-3 Tornado fighters had to intercept two Tu-95 bombers who flew close to Scotland after deviating from their standard routes along Norway’s coast.

Assessing the recent increase in Russian bomber flights, U.S. Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, commander of NORAD and U.S. Northern Command, argued that “it’s not provocative in any way. They follow the international rules. They’ve been very professional in how they’ve flown the flights, so I don’t see anything reckless in it.” Gen. Renuart added that the Russian military typically provides advance warning of their training exercises to U.S. commanders.

Nevertheless, the purpose of these flights is not to attack European or Asian targets, which the bombers can easily target with their long-range ALCMs while flying in Russian air space, where they can be better protected. Rather, it is to train the crews to launch their long-range cruise missiles from positions where they can reach the continental United States. Lt. Gen. Igor Khvorov, the Russian Air Force chief of staff, characterized the Guam flight as “business as usual.”

Although the Russian government has committed to buying sufficient fuel and providing adequate maintenance to resume regular patrols by the country’s strategic aviation fleet, it has yet to make the much costlier decision to purchase the next-generation weapons platforms the Russian Air Force need to match the latest American defense technologies.

In his annual address to the Russian Federal Assembly last year, Putin indicated that “over the next five years we will have to significantly increase the number of modern long range aircraft, submarines and launch systems in our strategic nuclear forces.” But the Russian government has not yet committed to purchase a next-generation strategic bomber or a longer-range air-launched cruise missile that would allow Russian pilots to more effectively attack U.S. targets.

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