Russian Strategic Aviation modernization programs involve Tu-160 and Tu-95 bombers.
15 more bombers are needed to maintain Moscow’s strategic deterrence capability: out of 12-13 Tupolevs of this type in the Russian Air Force, only 5 examples are combat capable, only one of those has been modernized since it entered active service.
The news of Soviet-era production lines reopened or sold to China have emerged in the last years and denied shortly thereafter so the rumors should be taken with a grain of salt. Anyway, provided the news is well-founded, the decision to reactivate the production line of the Tu-160 would be a sign that it is probably easier and more cost-effective to build new Blackjacks and refurbish the existing ones, instead of waiting for a completely new strategic bomber R&D program, as the PAK-DA.
Indeed, many believe the Russian industry lacks technology and resources to produce the PAK-DA, the next generation strategic bomber, a subsonic flying wing-shaped aircraft with radar-evading capabilities, advanced electronic warfare systems and able to carry new nuclear-capable long-range cruise missiles, destined to replace Moscow’s aging fleet of Tu-95 Bear and Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers.
According to some analysts the troubled development of the Sukhoi’s PAK-FA, Russia’s fifth generation stealth fighter jet, that still lacks a proper power-plant, is the proof that Moscow’s aerospace industry is simply unable to develop futuristic combat planes.
It is estimated that reactivation of the Backfire production line would cost more than USD 2 billion, while price tag for a single Tu-160M bomber is believed to be around USD 250-350 million.
However, there are many other problems that make the re-opening quite unlikely: as Altair news outlet noted, Tupolev lacks in digital documentation (the documents are being transformed into digital form now, as A claims) and human resources. Production process also involves titanium processing which always has been painful for the Russians. It was visible e.g. back in the 1970’s, when MiG-25 was designed. The airplane, instead of being made out of thermally resistant titanium, was made mainly out of steel. What is more, some components of the Tu-160 bombers came from Ukraine – acquisition of these, in the current geopolitical context, would be difficult at best.
Russia is currently in a dire situation economically, hence the news about the relaunch/modernization of the Blackjacks raises some doubts. If that is not enough, TASS agency claimed that Moscow is also going to upgrade ten examples of the Tu-95MS Bear strategic bombers. The modernization is going to focus on radio-electronic portion of the aircraft, including navigation and landing-assistance systems. All in all, Russian MoD claims that about 70% of the Russian strategic aviation inventory is to be modernized by 2020.
Dealing with strategic bombers, Russians have decided to deploy the Tu-22M3 Backfire-C (which is a smaller brother of the Blackjack) to bases in the Crimean peninsula. This was announced by the Russian Ministry of Defence back on Mar. 17; even though the U.S. is banned from introducing aircraft carriers into the Black Sea, considered the threat posed to flattops by air-launched cruise missiles, the Pentagon now has one more reason not to do it.
The whole Russian activity which additionally involves exercises which are being carried out in the Western and Central Military Districts. The drills have been ordered by Putin on Mar. 16, and are supposedly aimed at testing the quick reaction capabilities of the Russian Army. It additionally involves training in deployment of the Iskander and Iskander-M strategic missiles (which, by the way, constitute a breach of the INF treaty) in the Kaliningrad area, north of Poland. This may cause further tensions in the region.
Strategic aviation also involves strategic transport operations. Russia Today claims that not only are the Russians working on a prospective strategic bomber (the already mentioned PAK-DA, designed by Tupolev bureau), but they also started works on a strategic transport PAK-TA airplane, which is to be capable of reaching speeds of up to 2,000 km/h and transport payload of 200 tonnes at distances of 7,000 km.
RT claims that 80 new cargo aircraft are to be built by 2024. This seems to be a completely unrealistic statement, considering the status of the Russian economy, in the light of the sanctions imposed on the Russian Federation due to the Ukrainian crisis.
As our analysis shows, the Russian strategic aviation still has a deterrence potential. However, the West, throughout the last few decades, has been preparing itself for irregular conflicts, such as the Afghan war. As we can see – this can be, currently, considered to be a mistake. Thus we may expect that NATO would revise and change its military strategy, in order to tailor it to a conventional conflict – we have certainly entered a new phase of a sort-of Cold War 2.0 – since even though Russia faces financial problems (due to the Western control placed over the oil prices, and currency exchange rate between Russian Ruble and US Dollar), it is still involved in relevant arms development programs.
Image credit: Pavel Adzhigildaev/Wikimedia Commons