Thursday, July 24, 2008
Crossing the Red LIne
A TU-160 "Blackjack," on the ramp at Engels Airbase in Russia (Wikipedia photo).
“Retired” Cuban leader Fidel Castro says his country does “not have to explain” a recent report that Russia may deploy supersonic bombers to his Caribbean nation--a potential response to U.S. missile defenses planned for Eastern Europe.
Castro's comments appeared in yesterday in a Cuban newspaper. But neither Fidel nor his brother Raul, who succeeded him as the nation's president, have denied the report, published earlier this week in the Russian newspaper Izvestia. Sources told the paper that the Russian Air Force might send TU-160 bombers to Cuba in the coming months, as the United States moves ahead with proposed missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Russian officials have denied the report, but rumors about a possible bomber deployment can’t be totally dismissed. As we’ve noted in previous posts, there has been a dramatic upswing in flight activity by Russia’s long-range bomber fleet since 2006, although sortie totals for this year have been running behind those of 2007.
Last year marked the busiest period for Moscow’s bomber force in more than a decade. Russian TU-95 Bear, TU-22M Backfire and TU-160 Blackjacks flew a number of missions against western targets, including Alaska, Guam, Great Britain and Norway. The U.S. and its allies reacted to those flights by scrambling fighters, which escorted the bombers as they approached American or European territory.
Despite the increase in flight activity, Russian bombers never staged their most provocative profile—a flight along the U.S. eastern seaboard. While such missions occurred periodically during the Cold War, the last mission of that type was flown almost two decades ago.
During those flights, TU-95s exited Russian airspace near Murmansk, heading south toward the Greenland-Iceland-U.K. gap. After clearing that corridor, the bombers (usually a flight of two) would parallel the east coast of the United States, before landing at a Cuban base near Havana. Thanks to highly accurate intelligence, the flights never came as a surprise, and the Bears were under constant escort by U.S. or NATO fighters as they flew over the Atlantic.
After a couple of days in Cuba, the TU-95s returned to Russia, flying the same route in reverse. But the Izvestia report suggests a new wrinkle; rather than sending their bombers for a short stay, Moscow is hinting that the Blackjacks might be permanently deployed to Cuba, possibly at San Antonio de los Banos Airfield, the same base that hosted Bear deployments in the past.
As you might expect, the U.S. doesn’t want nuclear-capable strategic bombers based only 90 miles from our shores. During his confirmation hearing earlier this week, the new Air Force Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz, suggested that a long-term Blackjack presence would represent a “red line” for the United States.
Schwartz didn’t elaborate on his comment, but defense officials may offer a clarification in the coming days. In the past, the United States has tolerated brief stays by Russian bombers in Cuba, but no one has specified when a deployment would cross the military red line.
The scenario is further complicated by the availability of other bases in the region. Earlier this week, Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez called on Russia to form an alliance with his nation and Cuba, to resist “American aggression” in the Caribbean. Russian bombers could (potentially) shuttle between Cuba and Venezuela, avoiding prolonged stays in one location that would invite a U.S. response.
Potential bomber deployments to Venezuela are equally troubling, since it would place them within easy striking distance of the Panama Canal—and targets in the CONUS—but far enough away to avoid the red line issue.
And, unlike Cuba, Venezuela has cash and the gas to support a long-term Russian military presence. Readers will note that Cuba is being mentioned as only a refueling base for the Blackjacks; that suggests that Moscow may be angling for another location in the region to serve as a forward operating base, with Venezuela at the top of that list.
It won’t be another Cuban Missile Crisis—unless we discover that the Blackjacks deployed with nuclear weapons. But the prospective bomber deployment could pose a serious security challenge for the next administration. Someone ought to ask Senator McCain and Senator Obama about their thoughts on TU-160s in Cuba or Venezuela, and when such deployments would cross that proverbial “red line.”