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Blackjack mission changes nuclear balance of power

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst

WASHINGTON, Sept. 24 (UPI) -- Russia's supersonic nuclear bombers flew home across the arctic from Venezuela last week. But in their eight-day visit, they lastingly transformed the strategic nuclear balance of power in the Western Hemisphere.

The two Tupolev Tu-160 White Swans -- NATO designation Blackjack -- flew home last Thursday on their marathon 15-hour flight back to their home base at Engels in the southern Saratov region of Russia. But during their stay in Venezuela, where their crews were lavishly hosted by fiercely anti-American President Hugo Chavez, they carried out some highly significant strategic exercises and established sobering precedents for the future.

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"The aircraft ... have successfully carried out a patrol mission along the South American coast," Russian air force spokesman Lt. Col. Vladimir Drik said, according to RIA Novosti.

For the Tu-160 Blackjack is the most advanced and formidable nuclear bomber in the world. Its variable-geometry, or swing, wings give it a combination of unparalleled range and endurance in the air with the capability of bursts of flight at Mach 2, or 1,380 miles per hour at sea level. And it can carry stand-off, nuclear-capable X-555 cruise missiles with a range of 2,000 miles.

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That means that even a couple of the gigantic aircraft -- they can carry 99,000 pounds of munitions -- could "loiter" safely in international air space and still have the capability to hit multiple targets across the United States, from the southeast, bypassing the main antiaircraft, radar and antiballistic missile defense systems that are deployed across the arctic or along America's more northerly western and eastern coasts.

Also, the Bush administration has poured its antiballistic missile defense investment into ambitious Ground-based Mid-course Interceptors that could shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles fired by a so-called rogue state like North Korea or Iran.

Supersonic manned bombers carrying long-range, stand-off cruise missiles offer a very different threat that would require a massive investment and modernization in Mach 2-plus combat fighters and antimissile systems better suited to shoot Russian supersonic cruise missiles, which fly at almost three times the speed of the venerable U.S. Tomahawk. The technology and weapons systems necessary exist or can be recreated. But the United States has not invested in them for decades.

RIA Novosti cited Drik as saying the Tu-160s were equipped only with fake missiles without warheads. He said their main purpose during the visit was to confirm their capabilities of carrying out such "loitering" exercises in a tropical environment.

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The Russian government carefully calibrated the diplomatic and strategic issues surrounding the visits of the Tu-160s to Venezuela. It kept a cool-headed, balanced diplomatic profile over the visit. It took care to base the aircraft in Venezuela, thousands of miles away from the United States, and did not risk having them visit Cuba, which is only 90 miles off the shore of Florida. And, of course, manned bombers do not carry the same freighted sense of popular menace to the American public as intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The Kremlin also publicly and repeatedly emphasized that the aircraft carried out their missions "in strict accordance with international rules on the use of airspace over neutral waters, without violating the borders of other states," RIA Novosti said. And the news agency also quoted a Russian Foreign Ministry official as saying that the visit of the aircraft in no way indicated that Russia had created, or planned to create, any military, let along nuclear, base in Venezuela.

"Russia does not have military bases in Latin America," Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said. "The landing at the Venezuelan air base was carried out in line with prior agreements between Russia and Venezuela."

The Tu-160s' mission to Venezuela was the latest extension of the more confident policy that former Russian President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin approved in August 2007 of reviving the Cold War practice of Russian air force strategic patrols over the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic oceans. RIA Novosti reported that in the 13 months since then, Russian long-range bombers have flown more than 90 "strategic patrol flights."

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As was the case during the Cold War, such flights have been closely monitored by U.S. and NATO combat aircraft. The two Tu-160s were closely escorted during their marathon flight down to Venezuela by such Western aircraft. Their crews never had to feel lonely.

The U.S. government has made no secret of its concern about this new extension of Russian strategic air power. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated last month that Washington didn't like seeing Russian strategic bombers making long patrols once again along U.S. borders. She said the Kremlin was involved in a "dangerous game."

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