Russia upgrades bomber-ALCM force for 21st century

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Jan. 5, 2009 at 12:40 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 5 (UPI) -- Russia is betting big on its aging but more potent than ever strategic bomber force well into the 21st century. A senior air commander has revealed that all three of the main long-range bombers in the Kremlin's arsenal would be extensively modernized and upgraded this year.

The ambitious program will fit new targeting and navigation systems on Russia's fleets of Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjacks, Tupolev Tu-95MS Bears and Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfires. The long-range bombers will undergo major modernization in 2009, two-star Maj. Gen. Pavel Androsov, head of the 37th Air Army, told the RIA Novosti news agency Dec. 23.

"Our aircraft have been in service for about 15 years, which is only a fraction of their lifespan. So next year we plan to conduct a deep modernization of our aircraft," Androsov stated.

Russia's formidable Kh-55 (NATO designation ADS-15 Kent) air-launched cruise missiles are the best of their kind in the world. They have a range of 2,000 miles and can fly at speeds of 1,700 mph (Mach 2.8) at sea level, while flying non-ballistic routes, hugging the contours of the ground.

A single venerable Tu-95 -- the first of which flew in 1951 -- can carry and air-launch six of those ALCMs, potentially armed with nuclear weapons, from outside the range of any U.S. ground-based interceptor fighter. A single Mach-2 Tu-160 Blackjack, flying at speeds of up to 1,380 mph at sea level, can carry and fire up to 12 of them.

So great is the confidence of Russian air force planners in their strategic bombers, however, that they plan on using the upgraded versions in far more old-fashioned, conventional bombing attacks as well.

Androsov said one of the purposes of the electronics and navigation upgrades was to allow all the enhanced aircraft to drop the "dumb" unguided bombs within a radius of 20 meters, or just over 60 feet.

Androsov significantly said the upgrades would boost the operational range of the bomber fleet and give them more effective defensive weapons, presumably against U.S and NATO fighters and as defenses against U.S. air defense missile interceptors.

Androsov also documented the growing flight and training experience that the Russian air bomber force was reacquiring after a decade and more of decline following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

He told RIA Novosti that over 60 strategic and long-range bombers and 15 aerial fuel tankers had carried out long extended-duration patrol exercises during 2008 as well as 60 maneuvers during which more than 100 tactical missiles had been test-launched. With 660 flight hours clocked, the level of experience of Russian bomber crews remains far below that of the U.S. Air Force, but it is far more extensive than that of any other bomber force in the world.

Androsov also told the news agency that two Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjacks had set records in the history of the Russian strategic bomber force by making two 15-hour non-stop flights each and successfully taking on 25 tons of fuel during each flight. U.S. Air Force bombers have routinely had that level of capability for decades, but the Russians are not only reacquiring capabilities they had lost for many years but are also actively extending them.

Since mid-2007, the Russian air force has re-established its Cold War practice of varying out very long-range patrol flights over the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans.

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