A Russian TU-95 Bear H strategic bomber. Recent Bear missions against western targets in the Pacific and North Atlantic suggests that the bombers may resume flights along the U.S. east coast, something that hasn't happened since the Cold War (photo: GlobalSecurity.org)
They were an infrequent, though powerful symbol of the Cold War; occasional flights by Russian TU-95 "Bear" bombers along the U.S. eastern seaboard. Launching out of bases in central Russia, the huge, long-range bombers would fly north toward the Kola Peninsula, then swing southwest along the Norwegian coast and head for the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap. After passing Iceland, the Russian bomber (usually a single-ship) continue on its west/southwest heading, flying parallel to the east coast before landing in Cuba.
Thanks to timely intelligence cueing, the flights rarely came as a surprise. The Bears were closely tracked along their journey, and shadowed by Norwegian, British, American and Canadian Air Force jets, depending on their flight route. If we had a carrier battle group in the area--a frequent target for TU-95 show-of-force missions--Navy fighters participated as well. While the Russian flights served as a notice of their long-range strike capabilities, the "escorting" F-15s, F-16s, F-14s, CF-18s and F-18s reminded Bear crews that they were hardly invulnerable.
With the end of the Cold War, the bomber leg of Moscow's strategic triad essentially collapsed. Russian bombers--and their crews--spent most of their time on the ground, due to fuel shortages and funding woes. Flights along our eastern seaboard stopped, and missions against Iceland, Norway and various Pacific rim targets decreased dramatically.
But, Russia's economy growing rapidly (and defense spending on the increase), the bomber arm of their military is making a comeback. Earlier this year, Russian TU-95s have flown profiles against Britain, Norway and Alaska, and on Wednesday, two Bear crews staged their most aggressive mission in years, flying across the central Pacific, and passing within 300 miles of U.S. air and naval bases on Guam. The TU-95 flight coincided with on-going U.S. military drills in the area; it was the first Russian bomber flight flown against Guam since the Cold War.
As you might expect, Moscow is bragging about the mission, claiming that the Bears actually passed over the island, and "exchanged smiles" with the U.S. pilots sent to intercept them. But a U.S. official told the BBC that the TU-95s never came close enough to warrant an intercept, a fact confirmed by our own DoD sources. However, the Russian aircraft were easily within cruise missile range of the island; the Bear "H" variant used on Wednesday's mission carries the AS-15 Kent" air-launched cruise missile, which has a maximum range of 1500 NM.
Russia claims that its recent bomber flights represent a "return to business" as usual, and that's probably a fair assessment, given the resurgence of its bomber forces and the recent chill in relations between Moscow and Washington. But that begs an important question: in light of this weeks Guam flight (and recent Bear missions against other U.S. and western targets), is Russia preparing for that most provocative of profiles, a TU-95 flight along the eastern seaboard?
A number of indicators suggest that such a mission may be in the offing. First, as demonstrated by the recent Bear sorties the Pacific, Russian long-range aviation crews certainly have the resources--and training--to conduct that sort of mission. Secondly, with the inactivation of the USAF's Iceland-based air interceptor squadron, the Russians may feel more confident in their ability to "slip through" the GIUK gap, and achieve a measure of tactical surprise, though we certainly have "other means" for tracking Bears over the North Atlantic.
Additionally, the "friendship" between Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez alleviates another problem associated with a Bear flight to Cuba--the availability of fuel for local operations, and the return flight to Russia. With Venezuela now providing at least 80,000 barrels of oil to Cuba each day, local stocks of aviation fuel have reportedly increased, meeting a key logistical requirement for the prospective mission.
And, with Chavez now buying Russian arms--including 24 SU-30 Flankers--there's the outside chance that the "next" east coast Bear flight could terminate in Venezuela, rather than Cuba. That would allow Vladimir Putin (and the Venezuelan dictator) to send a powerful message to the United States, highlighting their growing alliance, and the potential for Russian bombers to strike at key targets in the Western Hemisphere, including the Panama Canal.
At this point, there's no firm indication of a pending "Bear" mission along the eastern seaboard, although one Air Force analyst we spoke with believes that such a flight is "inevitable," and will likely occur before year's end. Since 9-11, the U.S. air defense posture has improved dramatically, although the number of pilots and aircraft on alert remains lower than during the Cold War.
As of this morning, there are no reports of an increased alert status among key east coast air defense units (Otis ANGB, Massachusetts; Atlantic City, New Jersey, Langley AFB, VA, Jacksonville, Florida and Homestead AFB, Florida). Intelligence cueing would likely provide hours of advance warning, giving those units plenty of time to scramble their aircraft and escort the Bears. By some estimates, the U.S. maintains at least 35 fighters on air defense alert at all times, along with eight air refueling tankers and one E-3 AWACS.
While the fighters and tankers are already in position, the flight of a TU-95 would require the E-3 to deploy from its base in Oklahoma, to a location along the east coast. The AWACS aircraft would be used for control and coordination of the air defense mission, as the Russian bomber flies along the edge of U.S. airspace. Our sources tell us there is at least one AWACS at an east coast base this morning, but its presence appears related to routine training, and not an expected Bear mission.