UPDATED 20 November | For the first time the Russian strategic bomber fleet has been waging war in modern combat, launching long-range air strikes against targets / areas in Syria last night.
UPDATE | More footage has appeared of Russian bombers launching cruise missiles or dropping bombs, some of them under the watchful eye of -rather surprisingly – Iranian F-14 Tomcats. See here.
According to the Russian Ministry of Defence the attack fleet last night included 5 Tupolev Tu-160 “Blackjack”, 6 Tu-95MS “Bear”, 14 Tupolev Tu-22M3s “Backfire, 8 Sukhoi Su-34 “Fullback” and 4 Sukhoi Su-27SM “Flanker” all flying in from land-bases in Russia with flights lasting 4 hours and several thousands of miles. With at least the fighter aircraft probably supported by IL-78 “Midas” tanker aircraft.
Sources in Western capitals have acknowledged their governments were informed far ahead of the Russian operations this time, which included the launch of 34 cruise missiles. The attacks were concentrated on the Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor areas, as well as Aleppo and Idlib. The Russian planned 127 sorties against 206 targets, with 82 sorties against 140 objectives done. Syrian troops are said to have started a ground offensive about 15 to 25 miles from Idlib.
Part of the Russian Expeditionary Wing based at an Syrian military airbase near Latakia (Khmeymim) also went airborne. The wing now consists of eight fighter-bombers (4 Sukhoi Su-30SMs, 4 Sukhoi Su-34s), 12 strike/bombers of the Sukhoi Su-24M “Fencer” type, 12 close-air support and attack aircraft of the Sukhoi Su-25SM “Frogfoot” type, a dozen Mil Mi-24 “Hind” attack helicopters and 4 Mil Mi-8 “Hip” assault helicopters.
25 extra long-range aircraft
Moscow plans to augment the wing for now with 25 extra long-range aircraft (likely bombers and tanker aircraft), eight Su-34s and four Su-27SMs all operating from land-bases within the Russian Federation on lengthy strike missions to Syria against forces such as ISIL/Daesh.
Apart from Russia, French warcraft bombed targets they say are from ISIL/Daesh as well during the same night in Northern Syria, in what could may have been jointly co-ordinated attacks. France is stepping up its military operations in the area after ISIL has claimed responsibility of the terror attacks in Paris during the weekend. The attacks claimed the lives of at least 129 people. The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle – with on board Rafale multi-role fighters – is steaming towards the Eastern Mediterranean.
Russia wants to buy up to 50 newly produced Tupolev Tu-160 (Ту-160) strategic bombers, to have them serve next to the PAK DA stealthy bomber that the country from the year 2023 or later. Russian Air Force Commander Col. Gen. Viktor Bondarev has said on Thursday 28 May that his country needs both aircraft – as confirmed in earlier reports.
The Tu-160 – NATO-reporting name Blackjack – can carry 24 cruise missiles and 40 tons of bombs and can be deployed with both a conventional as a nuclear load (or a combination). Only 35 of these strategic bombers were produced from 1984 to the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. The 13 to 16 Blackjacks still in service are currently modernized, the first two in 2014 and another three or four planned for 2015. The bombers will also be enable to fly the new Tu-160 Raduga Kh-101 cruise missile capable of hitting targets 6,000 miles (9,600 km) from launch point.
The PAK DA stealthy bomber is being developed since 2008, designed by Tupolev as well. Work on bringing the final design into life on the first prototype has started. Aim is to have the bomber fly at subsonic speeds, powered by four engines. Unlike the Tu-160s movable wings, the PAK DA will be more like “a flying wing” – with some similarities to the US B-2 bomber. To make matters easier the PAK DA will have stuff like avionics already in use in the PAK FA stealthy fighter. This jet is already flying, but still under development.
No word yet on how many PAK DAs Moscow intends to buy, but the Tu-160 strength is likely to gain numbers in the coming years judging the latest statements. Although the number of 50 new aircraft is probably not the first aim. Airheadsfly.com believes that if production has really started, the fleet will first grow to 24, then to 32 aircraft before a decision on more is made. They will serve besides about 60 “Bear” bombers upgraded to Tu-95MS standard and – in a later stage – the first PAK DAs.
The Russian bear is clearly awoken over the Ukrainian and Crimea (Krim) situation. While it is unclear what the Ukrainian air forces are capable of and what their exact readiness situation is (see our article here), it is perhaps even more unclear what exactly the Russian bear is hiding in its den. One thing is sure: Russian military aviation is a formidable force that dwarfs Ukrainian capabilities.
According to Monday’s reports, Russian Sukhoi Su-27 Flankers were intercepted Sunday night by Ukrainian Flankers, without shots being fired. The Flanker is now probably the most numerous fighter aircraft in the theatre, with Russian numbers far exceeding those of Ukraine. The Russian Air Force has dozens and dozens of these formidable aircraft at its disposal, although many are slightly outdated by today’s standards.
As recent as December 2013, it was reported that a Russian Air Force fighter unit flying Flankers was moving to Baranavichy airbase in Belarus, a short 150 km (80 nm) flight from the Ukrainian northern – and Polish/NATOs eastern – border.
Next to Flankers, the Russian Air Force is equipped with large numbers of MiG-29 Fulcrum-C and MiG-29SMT aircraft. The Russian Navy also flies MiG-29K Fulcrums and Su-33 Flankers, albeit in smaller numbers. These naval aircraft are meant to fly from the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, but can easily be deployed from land bases like Belbek Airbase, that Russian ground forces took at the beginning of March during the first days of the Crimean conflict.
Su-35 ‘Super Flanker’
The newest Flanker version is the thrust vectoring and highly capable Su-35S Flanker-E, of which Vladimir Putins’ Russia ordered 48 in 2009. Deliveries run until next year. All of these ‘Super Flankers’ are based at Dzemgi airbase in the Khabarovsk region near China. But with the large ‘planned’ exercise – involving 150,000 troops, 90 aircraft, over 120 helicopters, 880 tanks and up to 80 ships – happening close to Ukraine, the Russian could be tempted to deploy some of the top dog Flankers closer to any possible action. The exercise ended on 4 March, with Putin ordering troops back to their barracks, according to Russian press agency Interfax.
A Flanker-derivative is the Su-34 Fullback, a medium range bomber designed to replace the obsolete Su-24 Fencer. Of these heavily weaponised Fullbacks, 32 were delivered by December 2013. According to Sukhoi sources the production facilities already started constructing another load of 92 aircraft. The Su-34 can carry up to eight tons of weaponry and deliver the payload to a target up to 680 miles (1,100 km) after lift-off without aerial refueling.
An older, but very capable ground attack aircraft is the Su-25 Frogfoot, used quite extensively in the 1994 Chechnya war and the 2008 South Ossetian war. Say the Russian equivalent of the US tank killing A-10 Warthog.
Russia’s long range bombers are the Tu-22M Backfire, Tu-160 Blackjack and the Tu-95MS Bear, with supposedly 16 of the former and 62 of the latter available. The Tu-160 Blackjacks are able to utilize the Raduga Kh-101 cruise missile, capable of delivering a payload of up to 880 pounds (400 kg) at a distance of 6,000 miles (9,600 km) after being launched from the belly of the Blackjack. So they never even have to come close to the best of Ukrainian air defence: the S-300 SAM systems with a max range of 200 km. All of Putins bombers have been flying long-range training missions over the last couple of years.
In a league of their own are the 122 MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors that Russia is said to have. The type was introduced in 1981. Sixty Foxhounds will be upgraded to MiG-31BM standard, with final delivery expected in 2020. The Foxhound will then soldier on until at least until 2028, possibly 2038. Although probably not the first choice of the Russian Air Force brass when things get out of hand, sending in a few Foxhounds to sweep clean the Ukrainian airspace must not been ruled out.
Russia’s most menacing attack helicopters are the Kamov Ka-50 Black Shark (NATO-name Hokum), Ka-52 Alligator, Mi-28NE Night Hunter and the Mil Mi-35M Hind, a renewed version of the famous Mi-24 Hind. Forces in the Russian Western District are known to have been equipped with the types. Numbers of Hinds and Mi-8 or Mi-17 Hips were allegedly seen over the Crimea the last few days, heading for Russian controlled or soon to be controlled locations.
Transports Reporters, Ukrainian military, locals and even the Russian Ministry of Defence have together reported tens of Ilyushin IL-76 Candid strategic airlifters heading or landing at Anapa (Krasnodor), Kershones Airbase in Sevastopol and Gvardeyskaya Airbase near Simferopol. Although public satellite images show a lot of these aircraft have been sitting around for years, doing nothing, they are still the backbone of the Russian transport fleet. The tanker version of the IL-76 is the IL-78 Midas, while the AWACS version is the A-50 Mainstay, of which Russia is supposed to have 26 in service.
Sporting its coloured star as always, the red bear is rising again. No matter what the operational status of the entire Russian armed forces is, the Air Force has no shortage of military aircraft. If war is the outcome, the Ukrainian opposition will clearly be the underdog.
Russian Air Force Tupolev Tu-160 (Ту-160) strategic bombers will fly the new Raduga Kh-101 cruise missile, its long-range fleet commander confirmed to Russian journalists this week.
The Kh-101 is capable of delivering a payload of up to 880 pounds (400 kg) at a distance of 6,000 miles (9,600 km) after being launched from the belly of the Blackjack, NATO’s reporting name for the Tu-160.
Russian AF Gen. Lt. Anatoly Zhikharev says that in 2014 other nations will not only notice more than last years 15 cruise missile tests, but will also see the 16 Tu-160s still in service more often on long-range patrol with stops in befriended nations all over the world. He didn’t say anything about any payload on those missions, but the Tu-160s are tasked with carrying conventional and nuclear weapons.
To tease and test the response Tu-160s and the smaller Tu-22Ms have been training against targets in North America, Europe and US-allied nations like Sweden and Colombia last year a couple of times. On their international power show – the first of the scale in five years time – Tu-160s landed in Nicaragua and Venezuela.
The Blackjack has a wingspan of 55.7 metres and a length of 55.7 metres. Its four turbofans give it an operational maximum speed of 971 knots (1800 km/h or Mach 1.5) and can bring the plane up to an altitude of more than 42,000 feet.
The Tu-160 is the world’s biggest combat aircraft, the largest supersonic aircraft and the largest plane which can move its wings in horizontal position (variable sweep) to accommodate high speeds. The plane can carry up to 40,000 kg (88,185 lb) of bombs and missiles in two internal bays. Although weapons can be attached externally, it is not often done – partly in order to lower the radar cross-section (visibility to enemy radar) of the aircraft.
First flight of the Tu-160 was in 1981, with the type entering Russian Air Force service in 1987. Thirty-six aircraft were built. Moscow is slowly upgrading the current fleet, with money allocated for three of the remaining 16 Blackjacks. The improvements will include comm/nav gear and better engines.
Tu-160s are based at Engels Airbase near Saratov in the heart of the former Soviet Union, relatively close to the Russian border with Kazakhstan. The Blackjacks fly with a crew of four.