Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Tracking Bears

Less than two weeks ago, we predicted that Russian TU-95 Bear bombers will stage a mission against the U.S. east coast before year's end (if not sooner), resuming a profile that hasn't been flown since the Cold War.

We're standing by that forecast, because all indicators suggest that Russian bomber crews are still preparing for such a flight. According to Sky News, a Bear H flew a mission over the North Atlantic last Friday, prompting an intercept by RAF "Typhoon" fighters. It represented the first operational intercept for the Typhoon since the new fighters assumed Britain's air defense alert mission earlier this summer. The Typhoon is replacing the RAF's aging fleet of Tornado F3's, which have performed the air defense mission for more than 20 years.

By our count, this is at least the second "Bear" mission flown against the U.K. so far this year. Russian bombers have also flown profiles against Norway, Alaska, and earlier this month, they passed within 300 miles of U.S. air and naval bases on Guam--their most aggressive mission in more than a decade. The sudden spike in bomber activity came after a decade of inactivity, when Russia's Bear, TU-22M Backfire and TU-160 Blackjacks flew infrequently, the result of cutbacks in Moscow's military budget.

But with Russia now awash in oil revenue, the Kremlin has more money for new military hardware--and increased training with existing systems. At the opening of yesterday's Moscow Air Show (the largest since the Soviet era), President Vladimir Putin announced ambitious plans to revive the Russia military, and make aircraft production "a priority." Aides to Mr. Putin told the U.K. Guardian that the effort may include renewed production of TU-95 and TU-160 bombers.

The Russian leader clearly understands the symbolism of bomber flights against the west, making it virtually certain that one or two Bears will stage a mission against our east coast later this year. Following a profile used during the Cold War, the Russian aircraft will cruise along the edge of U.S. airspace, prompting an intercept by Air National Guard F-15s and F-16s. The most likely destination for the TU-95s is Cuba, although a longer flight to Venezuela cannot be ruled out. After a brief stay in the Caribbean, the Russian bomber(s) will return home, following a similar route along the eastern seaboard.

To some degree, a resurrection of Russia's strategic bomber force was to be expected--perhaps inevitable. If Moscow was serious about maintaining a strategic triad (consisting of manned bombers, land-based ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles), then a resumption of long-range training missions by Bears and Blackjacks would be necessary. And, with more oil money flowing into the national treasury, Putin finally has the to fund his bomber fleet.

However, it is worth noting that Russia's strategic bomber force remains a shadow of its former self. Thanks to arms reduction treaties, aging airframes and limited resources after the collapse of communism, the number of Russian bombers has been significantly reduced from Cold War levels, and it's doubtful that Putin will build more than a handful of new Bears or Blackjacks, for several reasons.

First, money for new bombers could be better spent on aircraft (and other weapons systems) that can be used by Russian forces and sold for export. Some of the weaponry currently on display in Moscow is clearly aimed at that market, including variants of the Flanker fighter, and the S-400 air defense system.

Secondly, Russia's bomber force (though quite capable) was never the strategic equivalent of its U.S. counterpart. The bulk of Moscow's strategic forces was always concentrated in land-based missiles, with smaller numbers of SLBMs and manned bombers. It's a trend that remains evident today; Russia's most important strategic program is its deployment of silo and mobile versions of the SS-27 ICBM, which will form the backbone of Moscow's nuclear forces for decades to come. Funding for more Bears and Blackjacks will remain a lower priority, despite Mr. Putin's promise.

Finally, the Russian design bureau responsible for building bombers (Tupolev) is also the nation's largest builder of commercial aircraft--a market that Putin desperately wants to crack. While Tupolev has been largely idle for the past decade, Boeing and Airbus have racked up billions of dollars in aircraft orders. If Mr. Putin and Tupolev's management team are serious about becoming a player in the commercial aircraft business, then they must devote most of their effort (and money) in that arena. And that means fewer rubles for new bombers.

However, the prospect of new Blackjacks and Bears rolling off the assembly line can't be completely dismissed. Adding a few more airframes to the bomber fleet would be far cheaper that building and operating new ballistic missile subs--the leg of the Russian triad that has suffered the most over the past 20 years. Mr. Putin and his advisers are also aware that manned bombers are an extremely flexible option, with employment in both nuclear and conventional roles. To counter the USAF's impressive global strike capabilities, then Russia must rebuild its own bomber force, to some degree. And, we're seeing the early steps of that process, with a resumption of long-range training missions, and talk about building more bombers.


ADDENDUM: Arrival of the Typhoon was certainly welcomed by RAF air defense pilots. The older, Tornado air defense variant (ADV) was poorly suited by that mission, with limited climb and maneuvering capabilities. In fact, when Russian MiG-29 Fulcrums first flew to the U.K.'s Farnborough Airshow in the late 80s, Tornado ADV pilots assigned to escort them had to radio air traffic controllers, who instructed the Russians to descend to a lower altitude. The air defense Tornado was such a pig that it couldn't climb fast enough to meet the approaching Russian fighters.

While the Typhoon is a vastly superior aircraft to the Tornado F3, its performance is roughly akin to a late-model F-15, SU-27 or Rafale. It is not the equivalent of fifth-generation fighters like the F-22 or F-35, except in terms of price. At roughly 67 million pounds per aircraft, the Typhoon is slightly cheaper than the Raptor, and about the same price as the F-35.

One more thought: with the RAF managing to get its latest fighter in an "action shot" alongside a Bear, what are the odds that an F-22 will be involved in the intercept if--and when--the TU-95s fly a mission along our east coast.


Christopher Tassava said...

Fascinating stuff. I'm eager to follow your analysis of these flights, which are one of the more interesting and worrisome political developments in the past few years. To what extent are the long flights meant to serve as advertisements for a reviving Tupolev?

Anonymous said...

Sounds like my local Air National Guard detachment (158th FG, Burlington IAP, tasked with CONUS Air Defense) will have some nice pictures to show interested viewers. I only hope that there's enough of the Cold War generation left to warn today's pilots that approaching a Bear risks major hearing damage. When the prop tips are supersonic, the plane is mega loud.

Utopia Parkway said...

See also 2 RAF jets shadow Russian military plane near UK air space by AP

which just gives some more info about the Bear attack

and this

Rising powers have the US in their sights at asia times

which offers an opinion about the US and how we are facing much conflict with Russia and others.

Papa Ray said...

If our Air Force had it's way, we would be building dozens of new bombers and three or four times more F-22s.

And more missiles for both, and more surface to air missiles.

Now they can point to the evil Russians again and say "We must have our new toys and bunches of them."

Round and Round...

While China just smiles.

Papa Ray
West Texas

halojones-fan said...

I don't think it's worrisome at all. In fact, I welcome a demonstration of Russian strategic capability, because it's going to give the Chinese something else to think about.

Unknown said...

Chris--I don't think the flights are aimed as an ad for Tupolev; they're designed to send other types of messages. However, Tupolev could benefit if Russia follows-up on boasts about building more bombers. There's also an outside chance Russia could export some of the aircraft; they sold Bear F ASW platforms to India back in the 80s, and I'm sure China would like access to Blackjack technology.

Ned--I've been checking to see if there's anyone left among the guard AD guys who have actually intercepted a Bear. Perhaps if you have some friends in the 158th FG, you could pass along my query: when was the last time that one of their jets shadowed a Bear off the east coast, and are any of those pilots still serving. Also, as you probably know, one of the Vermont ANG's air defense alert sites is at Langley AFB, VA, home of the Air Force's first F-22 Wing. About 25 years ago--when F-106s were on air defense alert at Langley--the AD squadron commander (48 FIS) had "Defender of the Eagle's Nest" painted across the front of his alert hangars, facing the flightline. The "Eagle's Nest" crack was a reference to the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley, the Air Force's premier F-15 unit. Needless to say, the Eagle drivers didn't take kindly to the idea that a 1960-era F-106 was the "defender" of their nest, and the sign came down the next day.

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