...Russia finally staged a much-anticipated bomber flight along our eastern seaboard on Wednesday. A pair of TU-160 Blackjacks flew across the North Atlantic, then paralleled the Canadian and U.S. coastlines before heading across the Caribbean, and landing in Venezuela.
It marked the first time that Russian bombers have operated in the Western Hemisphere since the Cold War. During that era, propeller-driven TU-95 "Bears" made occasional deployments to Cuba, following roughly the same route used by the Blackjacks. The TU-160 is a jet-powered strategic bomber, slightly larger--and faster--than the U.S. Air Force B-1 Lancer. Moscow has a total of 16 Blackjacks in its inventory.
As you might expect, Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez was tickled pink by the deployment, part of expanding ties between his country and Russia. As the Associated Press reports:
The Venezuelan leader said the two Russian Tu-160 bombers will conduct maneuvers and that he hopes to “fly one of those things” himself.
Chavez called the deployment part of a move toward a “pluri-polar world” — a reference to moving away from U.S. dominance. “The Yankee hegemony is finished,” Chavez said in a televised speech.
Chavez has strongly backed Russia’s stance in Georgia. He denied that Russia’s plan for a deployment later this year is related, saying the Russian navy’s visit has been planned for more than a year.
Venezuela remains a leading oil supplier to the United States, but as tensions with Washington have grown, Chavez’s government has spent billions of dollars on Russian weapons including helicopters, Kalashnikov rifles and Sukhoi fighter jets.
Chavez also said Venezuela is looking to buy Russian submarines and is working with Russia to set up an air-defense system including long-range radar and “rockets ready to defend the country.”
So in other words, don't be surprised if the S-300 SAM system and Kilo-class subs show up in Venezuela somewhere down the road.
Over the near term, the Russian Navy will show the flag in the Caribbean later this fall. Earlier this week, Moscow announced that a naval squadron, headed by the Kirov-class cruiser Peter the Great, will visit Venezuela in November, part of a planned joint exercise with Venezuelan forces.
As a military show-of-force, the bomber deployment and the scheduled naval exercise are modest affairs--certainly nothing that compares with an U.S. carrier group showing up in your neighborhood, or the movement of entire bomber squadrons to Great Britain and Diego Garcia during Allied Force or the Gulf Wars.
But the Russian moves served their purpose--providing a tit-for-tat response to recent American naval missions in the Black Sea (a result of Moscow's invasion of Georgia), and our planned deployment of ballistic missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. Sending nuclear-capable bombers and a naval squadron to our hemisphere is a reminder that Russia remains a military power, even if its power projection capabilities are a shadow of what they once were. As Douglas Barrie of Aviation Week reminds us, the two bombers now in Venezuela represent 1/8 of Russia's TU-160 inventory.
A Defense Ministry spokesman in Moscow tells the AP that the Blackjacks will conduct training missions "over neutral waters" for several days before returning home. He didn't specify where those flights will take place, but it's almost certain that one--or more--of them will carry the TU-160s in the general direction of the Panama Canal. We're sure that Moscow won't pass up the opportunity to remind us of the waterway's vulnerability.
Hugo Chavez practically telegraphed the bomber deployment with recent comments on his television show. Now, if Mr. Chavez is to be believed, he will receive an orientation flight in a Blackjack during their deployment. We don't envy the Russian IP with the misfortune of having Chavez along for the ride.
We should also note that the flight was not a surprise to U.S. and NATO air defense forces. Thanks to intelligence cueing, our fighters were literally waiting for the TU-160s, escorting them across the North Atlantic and along our east coast.