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22 March 2017

The Future of Russian Strategic Bombers

How Russia is turning its ageing strategic air force into a foreign-policy trump card

Russia’s air force has unveiled plans to revamp its fleet of strategic bombers. These are its aircraft capable of heavy deployments of nuclear weapons. The plans are long overdue, and the aim is to build up to fifty new Tu-160M2 aircraft at a rate of three per year. 2027 has been earmarked as the year when Russia’s air force will start work on yet another generation.

Strong intent, but that all seems far away from today’s reality. Currently, Russia possesses 11 Tu-160 aircraft (or, according to other data, 16) produced in 1984–2008, and 55 Tu-95MC turboprop aircraft built in the 1980s (but designed in the 1950s). Meanwhile, Tu-95MC planes will remain in service for the next 20–30 years.

In comparison, the United States possesses three types of heavy jet-powered bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons: 58 B-52H aircraft and 18 in reserve (produced in 1954–1962), while the denuclearisation of 30 such aircraft to conventional-only configuration will be complete by 2018; 64 B-1B planes (produced in 1985–1988) which were completely denuclearised in 2011; and 21 B-2 bombers (produced in 1988–1997). This means that, by 2018, the USA will possess approximately 49 heavy bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The B-52H will remain in service until the 2040s thanks to modernisation programmes, and the B-2 – until 2058.

In this context, Russia’s actions are not only hiding the fact that it is unable to complete the designs for a new aircraft within the target timeframe, but also that it faces a problem with its deteriorating fleet of jet-powered Tu-160 heavy bombers. This process is leading to changes in its approach to long-distance aviation in general.

Flying capacity limits

The modernisation of the Tu-160 and its return to production (as the Tu-160M2) is primarily linked to the short (400–750-hour) engine life of the NK-32 engine the planes are fitted with. Meanwhile, it is well known that the Russian air-force pilots’ average flying time is currently 120 hours a year (mainly on Tu-95MC flights), and part of the existing Tu-160 fleet is simply grounded and serves as a source of spare parts for aircraft in service.

This implies that the lifespan of these aircraft – the only jet-powered strategic bombers in Russia’s possession – is coming to an end. Since their purpose, apart from other military and diplomatic objectives, is to support Russia’s claim to superpower status, phasing out the Tu-160 entirely would have seriously damaged the Kremlin’s political reputation both abroad and at home.

However, the engines are still the main problem with the Tu-160’s modernisation. Since 2012, the Russian JSC Kuznetsov (a member of the state-run United Engine Corporation) has relaunched production of the NK-32 engines which the Tu-160M2 aircraft will be fitted with. It is possible that the first Tu-160M2s will be from existing Tu-160s with the engines replaced, avionics upgraded, etc.

Each Tu-160 is fitted with four engines, and Kuznetsov was supposed to have produced four or five new NK-32 engines in 2016. In other words, to build three Tu-160M2 aircraft a year, Kuznetsov must produce a minimum of 12 NK-32 engines. Meanwhile, even at the end of February 2017, it was unclear if the company had managed to produce even one NK-32 engine last year but, again, this year’s output plan foresees delivery of five engines. This all indicates that Russian manufacturing capacities are seriously limited.

For the time being, Moscow’s priority is to maintain the number of active jet-powered strategic bombers. The plans to build 50 Tu-160M2 aircraft can be described as political rhetoric. Hence, Russia’s ability to design a new heavy bomber is completely out of the question. In the decades to come, Russian strategic aviation will continue to rely on much simpler but dependable turboprop Tu-95MCs until their lifespan is over.

New weapons

Apart from its planes, Russia is also trying to equip its strategic air force with new long-range cruise missiles. Since Autumn 2015, apart from the Kalibr-NK naval missile system, X-555 and X-101 missiles – carried by Tu-95MCs (a payload of up to 16 missiles) and Tu-160s (12 missiles) – have also been deployed in Syria.

The X-555 missile is fairly well-known – it is a version of the key strategic air force’s X-55 missile, created at the start of the 1980s. It has a conventional warhead and 2000-km range, as well as а more precise guidance system (the nuclear X-55 has a 3500-km range, but its accuracy is much lower). However, information concerning X-101 missiles (which have a nuclear version, the X-102) is more reminiscent of propaganda newsreels. Here, it is important to pay attention to details.

These missiles are similar in size. They use engines of the same type: Ukrainian R-95-300s for the X-55 and X-555, or Russian TRDD-50As (36MT, according to NPO Saturn’s information) for the X-101. The X-101/X-102’s range is claimed to be in the order of 4500–5000 km, with high accuracy. It is unclear how such figures could have been achieved, however. Most likely, this implies that X-101/X-102 missiles are a further evolution of the X-55/X-555. The difference between them is that the newer version uses Russian engines, and probably has more advanced electronics and a GLONASS navigation system.

One interesting detail: the majority of the X-55 missiles produced before the collapse of the USSR were located in Ukraine. 575 of these missiles were handed over to Russia in 1999 as a debt repayment (the nuclear warheads had obviously been removed even earlier, as per the 1994 Budapest Memorandum). The creation of X-555 missiles essentially meant equipping the existing conventional missiles with guidance and control systems. Since stocks of the cruise missiles produced during Soviet times are currently running out, replenishing the arsenal with new missiles has proved to be a problem. Apparently, this is what led to the appearance of the “mysterious” X-101/X-102 cruise missiles.

It is noteworthy that tests of these new missiles coincided with the use of other long-range missiles designed for the navy – Kalibr-NK. Both missiles use TRDD-50A (36MT) engines, the production of which Russia tried to launch from the mid-1990s, in order to decrease dependence on Ukrainian factories. They managed to achieve this at the NPO Saturn enterprise no earlier than 2013.

This is when it became possible to produce the cruise missiles which Russia pompously showed off urbi et orbi (“to the city and the world” – Latin) during the Syrian campaign. The combination of new opportunities and apparent problems with the aircraft themselves faced by the strategic air force should inevitably lead to a revised concept for their deployment.

(Sur)realities of the strategic air force

For decades, Russian heavy bombers were designed for attacking aircraft carriers, submarines and naval bases. The Tu-95MC and Tu-160 were, of course, designed for nuclear ground attacks. Once the Cold War was over, their capabilities needed to be expanded, since maintaining aircraft which were unable to participate in regular battles was too expensive a luxury.

The idea to de-escalate regular conflicts using limited nuclear strikes was devised back in the 2000s. A heavy bomber is supposed to demonstratively hit an enemy’s uninhabited territory or open sea with a nuclear strike, forcing the opponent to cease fire for fear of a nuclear attack. Subsequently, a paragraph stating that Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a conventional attack was added to the Russian 2010 military doctrine.

Nevertheless, Russian heavy bombers equipped with conventional long-range missiles were deployed for the first time during the Syrian campaign. This demonstrated that the Kremlin had acquired one more instrument for “projecting its power” far beyond its borders. This could tempt it to start projecting its power in situations where it lacks other means to achieve its political goals. Meanwhile, the Tu-95MC, Tu-160 and tanker aircraft, as well as supersonic Tu-23M3 strike bombers, were all used in Syrian air strikes.

These aircraft were initially designed exclusively to attack aircraft carriers (up to 80 aircraft against one aircraft carrier), and are capable of carrying three supersonic X-22 and X-32 cruise missiles with up to a 600-km range. Both missiles can be equipped with conventional or nuclear warheads, and the newest one came into service in 2016. There are only 30–50 of these aircraft, and, due to their 2000-km range, they are exempt from the New START treaty.

At the same time, indirect information indicates that Moscow may consider upgrading some of these bombers to make them suitable for carrying X-101/X-102 missiles. According to the wording of the treaty, the term “heavy bomber” means a bomber of a type equipped for nuclear ALCMs with a range of over 600 km. Nevertheless, Russia has only classified the Tu-95MC and Tu-160 as heavy bombers.

Since the number of strategic offensive delivery vehicles in Moscow’s possession is currently below the threshold defined by the New START treaty, this wouldn’t have breached the agreement de jure. Moreover, it would compensate for the problem of the deteriorating Tu-160s and their delayed modernisation. Such a scenario would allow the Kremlin to recreate its favourite situation of external political uncertainty and play another card to force the United States (and the West as such) into talking to it on its own terms.

In the end, Russia’s main goals for their strategic air force are: a) to maintain (or slowly reduce) the number of aircraft in service through modernisation; b) to increase the number of long-range, air-launched cruise missiles, but not the aircraft to carry them; c) unlike the USA, to continue deploying heavy bombers that are still 100% nuclear-capable in conventional warfare abroad.

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