WHAT WAS the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, really up to when he announced on August 17, 2007, that long-range patrol flights would be resumed on a regular basis? He claimed that external security threats were forcing him to revive the Soviet-era practice of sending bomber aircraft on regular patrols beyond the borders. And while this may have marked a turning point in political manoeuvring between East and West, it also provided another well-publicised morale-booster to his people.
Russian bomber force commanders and aircrews have been much more pragmatic in their interpretation of this decision; they see it as a long-overdue opportunity to greatly improve their training. Provided at last with the resources they need, bomber aircrews have been working hard to attain a mission readiness level close to how it was in Soviet times.
President Putin’s announcement was timed to be politically significant — it was made during a visit on the last day of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) counter-terrorism exercise Mission 2007, which involved China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and took place on the Chebarkul range in Russia’s Ural mountains.
«I have made a decision to resume regular flights of Russia’s strategic aviation. Starting today, such tours of duty will be conducted regularly and on a strategic scale. Our pilots have been grounded for too long; they are happy to start a new life. Today, August 17, 2007, at 00:00 hours, 14 strategic bombers took to the air from seven airfields across the country, along with support and refuelling aircraft. From today such patrols will be carried out on a regular basis.»
A total of 50 sorties reportedly took place on the first day, amassing a combined flying time of around 400 hours.
President Putin maintained that these patrols would be conducted in areas with active maritime traffic considered important to Russia from an economic perspective. This could be regarded as part of his drive to reassert Russia’s position as a global power after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact in 1990. Recently, Russia has moved away from the cordial relations it shared with the United States when the Berlin Wall came down, and has protested loudly against American proposals to establish anti-ballistic missile sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. It further distanced itself by withdrawing from the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty during December 2007.
Interestingly, even before the long-range patrols were resumed, for the first time since the end of the Cold War a pair of Tu-95MS Bear-Hs bombers appeared over the Pacific on August 8, 2007, not too far away from the important US military base on Guam. And prior to this, another two Bear-Hs flew a mission that brought them close to UK airspace on July 19. On this occasion — which was widely reported by the British media — the Tu-95s were intercepted by a pair of RAF Tornado F3 fighters scrambled from RAF Leuchars in Fife.
On August 21 Typhoon F2s from RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire, were scrambled for the first time since becoming operational to intercept two Bear-Hs approaching Britain’s area of responsibility. The UK Ministry of Defence, keen to promote another career milestone of its latest fighter, proudly released photos of its latest hardware flying in formation with a Bear-H.
On September 6, the biggest build up of Russian airpower in NATO airspace saw as many as eight Tu-95s track their way from the Barents Sea and into the Atlantic. They were intercepted first by Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16s scrambled from Bod0 in Norway before being passed over to Tornado F3s scrambled from RAF Leuchars. Russian sources claim the Bear-Hs were shadowed by 20 NATO fighters.
On September 13, two Tu-160s operating from their home base at Engels were sent on patrol over the Atlantic — their mission took 15 hours. On the same date, Tu-95MS and MiG-31 s were also involved in patrols off northern Norway, supported by 11-78 Midas tankers.
On September 20, two Tu-95s appeared inside the Icelandic air observation zone north of the island and were intercepted by RAF fighters. The Bears circled around Iceland closing to within 43 miles (70km) of the shore but staying just outside that country’s airspace. Four days later, Russian Air Force spokesman Col Alexander Drobishevsky announced that the Tu-95 bomber missions flown on September 20 had lasted for up to 17 hours. The Bears flew off the Canadian and Alaskan coasts, returning home to Engels via the North Pole, supported by II-78 tankers. Two more Bears tasked to patrol in the Atlantic followed a route that brought them to Iceland and the eastern part of the ocean; their mission lasted 12 hours. Tu-22M3 long-range bombers from the 52nd TBAP (Tiazholyi Bombardirovochnyi Aviatsionyi Polk — Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment), based at Shaikovka, also carried out five hour-long missions in international airspace over the Black Sea. As Drobishevsky emphasised, all patrols were flown over neutral waters, without violating the borders of the other states and with full adherence to international rules and procedures.
Russia’s Internal Decision
Russia’s announcement that it was resuming the long-range patrol flights was described as «an internal decision» by the United States’ State Department. President Putin’s phrase — «combat duty on a regular basis» — in the August 17 speech has, however, created some confusion internationally. If the phrase, «combat duty» is assumed to mean the bombers are carrying nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, then Russia would have unilaterally reneged on an agreement with the US and Britain signed in 1991 that stated it would not engage in long-range nuclear bomber flights. However in reality the meaning was a lot less daunting.
Maj Gen Pavel Androsov, 37th Air Army of the Supreme Command (Strategic Purpose) Commanding Officer subsequently commented: «The noise which has been created about our flights is purely an artificial one. We flew in the past, are flying now and will continue to fly in the future to train our pilots. They will feel comfortable in any part of the world, wherever a combat mission is ordered.
«We do not fly with nuclear weapons on board our bombers; there are no real-world weapons at all. The bombers carry only training rounds, which allow aircrews to master the dynamics of the weapons employment process. We are carrying out air patrols instead of air combat patrols in order to demonstrate our presence and capabilities.»
US irritation to President Putin’s August 17 announcement was expressed in a thinly concealed manner. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said at a press conference: «We certainly are not in the kind of posture we were with what used to be the Soviet Union. It’s a different era.»
«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.»
Commenting on the recent increase in Russia’s strategic aviation activities in close proximity to the US and Canada’s east and west coasts, USAF Gen Gene Renuart, Commander of the Northern Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and US Northern Command, commented: «The Russians are not being provocative in any way. » When asked if they were being reckless, the General responded: «They follow the international rules; they’ve been very professional in how they’ve flown the flight. » Gen Renuart noted that the Russian military typically provides advanced warning of its exercises.
Russian Air Forces’strategic assets
By early 2007, the Russian Air Force fielded a fleet of 79 strategic bombers according to data exchanged with the United States under the START I arms control treaty, comprising 15 Tu-160 Blackjacks and 64 Tu-95MS Bear-Hs. The long-range aviation branch of the Russian Air Force is controlled by the 37th Air Army of the Supreme Command (Strategic Purpose). In addition to the one Tu-160 and three Tu-95-equipped regiments, it also has four regiments flying the Tu-22M3 Backfire which lack any strategic strike capabilities.
The 37th Air Army also controls an aircrew training centre at Ryazan and one tanker regiment, equipped with the 11-78, also stationed at Ryazan -see Page 32.
Maj Gen Androsov described the principal peacetime mission of Russia’s strategic aviation as: ‘To demonstrate a presence in the most sensible places of the world wherever there are Russian interests, as well as to exercise situation control in different areas of the world.»
Furthermore he emphasized that these patrol flights are nothing new in remote comers of the world — in the 1980s, both the Myasishchev 3M and Tupolev Tu-95 used to patrol in the northern areas of the Atlantic and Pacific, not far away from the US and Canadian coasts, as well as around Ireland and the UK. Between January 1985 and April 1987, as many as 107 long-range power projection missions were earned out, including 68 on combat duty and 102 for air refuelling.
Maj Gen Androsov told the Russian Ministry of Defence’s newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) that the patrols are a good reminder of strategic aviation’s principal mission. He added that the recommencement of these flights meant aircrews had the opportunity to hone their skills during regular and rather challenging flight operations in Polar latitudes, hardening their physical and psychological resolve. These operations — often carried out in extreme weather conditions with foreign fighters shadowing them — allow the crews to test their bomber’s navigation systems and defensive aids.
Furthermore the pilots’ annual flying hours have increased from 20-30 relatively recently to over 80. Many young aircrew are getting their first chance to practise flying from forward operating locations beyond the Polar Circle at maximum takeoff weights and over the waters of three oceans.
This has enabled 40 young bomber commanders to be trained between August and December 2007. Maj Gen Androsov revealed that from December, the sharp increase in flying activities had made it possible to assign a combat-ready aircrew to each of the air force’s strategic and long-range bombers.
Generally, patrol flights over the ocean are carried out in pairs, due to safety requirements. The average mission duration is 12-14 hours; the bombers flying at altitudes around FL360 (36,000ft [10,972m]), and at up to 485kts (900km/h). Occasionally air-to-air refuelling (taking on up to 30 tonnes of additional fuel) enabled the bombers to remain airborne for 16-17 hours.
By early December 2007, approximately 70 long-range missions had been carried out over remote parts of the world, with 217 simulated missile launches. In addition to operating from their home bases, bombers tasked to patrol the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific also used forward operating locations beyond the Polar Circle, such as Vorkuta, Olen’ya, Tiksi, Monchegorsk and Anadir.
Shadowed by NATO fighters
Maj Gen Androsov said that by early December 2007, bomber crews had reported about 130 foreign fighters had shadowed the various patrols, performing over 70 intercept missions; the total escort time amounting to 42 hours. The escorted bomber crews reported the NATO fighter pilots did not display any aggressive behaviour during the intercepts.
The Major General noted: «only a strong interest has been observed so far», adding that the NATO fighter pilots behaved in a «very civilised and respectful matter». Apparently they would grin and salute their Russian colleagues.
There were some occasions, however, when the NATO pilots escorting a Tu-160 lined up their mounts on the port and starboard side of the Russian bomber as well as overhead and below, in an effort to obtain detailed pictures. Maj Gen Androsov, said the NATO jets approached at what he considered could be potentially dangerous distances — within 16-26ft (5-8m) wingtip-to-wingtip. However, he added that the fact no emergency situation had arisen from such close formation flying was a testament to the flying skills of both sides.
As Maj Gen Androsov claimed that during the Cold War-era, relations in the air were much worse and that on occasions NATO pilots behaved aggressively, positioning their fighters immediately in front of the bombers and then suddenly engaging the afterburners. He said that the hot exhaust generated from the jets entered the inlets and caused surges in the Tu-95’s engines, in many instances this necessitated an emergency cut-off and relight of the affected engines.
He claimed that the USAF has been observed practising a large-scale air defence mission against the Russian bombers in the vast area between the Aleutian Islands and the coastlines of Alaska and Canada. According to the Major General on one occasion, a Russian Tu-95MS crew reported that it was shadowed for three-and-a-half hours; during which the American fighters were supported by an E-3 AWACS as well as a tanker.
Maj Gen Androsov reported that the US fighters performed multiple air-to-air refuellings with the tanker, which maintained a parallel course as close as 6 to 8nm (10 to 15km) to the Russian bombers.
The American intercepts were made a long way from US or Canadian territory as part of a practice air defence operation against the Russian bombers.
Maj Gen Androsov claims that the average age of the Russian long-range bomber fleet is relatively low — the majority of the aircraft being between 15 and 20 years old. «Our bombers are at the height of their powers as they have just begun to show up their full capabilities. We now need to upgrade the aircraft’s navigation suites and weapons. Powerplants, communication and defensive aid suites are being improved as well.»
The Major General, who is an experienced Tu-95 pilot and has also flown the Myasishchev 3M, Tu-22 and Tu-116, noted that the Bear-H features excellent controllability and is a very agile mount despite its huge size. At this stage it’s not known how long the Russian Air Force will be able to sustain its long-range patrols at the levels carried out over the past six months. It will depend upon what resources have been allocated for maintenance support, crew training and fuel.
Maintenance support is the critical unknown quantity in the equation, especially with the fuel-thirsty Tu-160 Blackjack. There were some reports in the Russian press that there could be serious issues with that type’s engines owing to a shortage of spare parts.
There had been a facility in Kazan that manufactured critical engine components but production there is said to have stopped in the early 1990s. Until recently, major overhauls of the Tu-160’s NK-32 afterburning turbofans could be carried out using parts held in stock. Now those stocks are depleted and restoring production could be a very difficult, protracted and a costly undertaking. NK-32’s time between overhaul is 1,000 hours and total service life is reported as 3,000 hours.