Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sabre-Rattling in NATO's Backyard

The U.K. Telegraph reports that Russia is conducting its latest round of sabre-rattling in much warmer waters--a location that might be described as NATO's backyard.

According to the paper, Moscow dispatched a pair of TU-160 Blackjack bombers to participate in an on-going Russian naval exercise off the coast of Spain and France. During today's mission, the bombers fired long-range air-to-surface missiles in the Bay of Biscay, providing another demonstration of Russia's resurgent military power. It's Russia's largest show-of-force near NATO territory in more than 25 years.

While often described as Moscow's answer to the U.S. B-1, the Blackjack is actually about 30% larger and has a higher top speed than its American counterpart. Primary armament for the TU-160 consists of the AS-15 Kent (a long-range cruise missile), and the AS-16 Kickback, roughly equivalent to the U.S. Short-Range Attack Missile or SRAM.

While the AS-16 was originally designed to punch through land-based air defenses (with a nuclear warhead), Russia has developed an anti-ship version that was first exhibited more than a decade ago. Moscow hasn't announced the type of missiles that were employed during the exercise, although the AS-16 is the most logical choice. There was no word on what notional targets (if any) were assigned to the bombers and their missiles.

Today's bomber mission is part of a larger Russian air and naval exercise that was announced last month. A total of 11 vessels--including Russia's only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov--are participating in the drills, described as the largest near NATO territory since the Cold War.

The on-going exercise serves a number of purposes. First, it allows outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin to flex his military muscles, demonstrating that Russia's military has awakened from a decade of inactivity and under-funding. The air and naval drill is the latest in a series of highly provocative Russian military missions over the past year. During that time, Moscow's long-range bomber force has flown a series of sorties against Norway, Great Britain, Iceland, Canada, Alaska, and U.S. bases in the Far East.

On an operational level, the exercise will allow the Admiral Kuznetsov's air wing to conduct needed training, under better weather conditions than those found in Russian waters during the winter months. While the Kuznetsov remains the pride of the Russian fleet, flight training has been sporadic since the vessel rejoined the fleet in 2006, more than a decade after it was built. During its early years, the carrier was beset with technical problems, including faulty arrester gear used to halt landing jets.

While the current drill pales in comparison to large-scale naval exercises of the Soviet era, it will score domestic political points for Mr. Putin, with elections in the offing. The maneuvers also allow him to forcibly express his displeasure over various western initiatives, ranging from independence for Kosovo, to a proposed missile defense deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic. Putin apparently believes that by ratcheting up the military posturing, he can persuade NATO to back down on those proposals.

And, it just might work. The Democrats are united in their opposition to the European missile defense shield, and the Kremlin would prefer to deal with a President Clinton or President Obama in 2009. In the interim, the Russians will keep staging high-profile military exercises near NATO territory, giving liberal elites another excuse to complain about "soured" relations with Moscow, and blaming it all on President Bush.


At the risk of sounding redundant, the Russian exercise in the Bay of Biscay makes a Bear run against the U.S. eastern seaboard all-but-inevitable. With TU-95s scheduled to participate in the current exercise, it would be easy to add an extra "cell" of bombers (two aircraft) to the formation. As the Bears approach the Greenland-Iceland-U.K. Gap, most of the bombers would turn south, steering around Britain and heading toward the exercise area. The remaining two-ship element would break west, bound for our east coast. After flying parallel to the coastline, the Bears would land in Cuba or Venezuela, then return by the same route a few days later.

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