Russian Air Force Tu-160 Strategic Bombers To Make Unprecedented Visit To South Africa

A file photo of a Tu-160 (Image credit: Aktug Ates via Wiki).

Two Russian Blackjacks to make the type’s first ever visit to Africa.

On Oct. 22, 2019, two Russian Tu-160 Blackjack bombers will land at Air Force Base Waterkloof in what is the first known visit of the strategic bombers to Africa.

Director at African Defence Review Darren Olivier has published on Twitter the media invite issued by the Department of Defence of the Republic of South Africa. According to the invite, the South African Air Force will host some military aircraft belonging to the Russian Aerospace Force during their visit to the country.

The Russian “contingent” will start arriving in South Africa on Oct. 21 and will include an Antonov An-124 Ruslan and  Il-62 aircraft: in fact, an accompanying Ruslan heavy lift cargo aircraft for support equipment and spares and a retro-looking Ilyushin Il-62 passenger aircraft carrying support, diplomatic and media personnel are part of what we could define as a “standard support package” to a Blackjack deployment, as observed in previous deployments. Dealing with the two Tu-160s, the strategic bombers are slated to touch down at the air base located south of Pretoria, at approximately 06.30AM LT on the following days and they will be escorted by the SAAF Gripen and Hawk aircraft (so there might be some interesting photo opportunity there).

“AFB Waterkloof could perhaps be considered the main base of the SAAF, housing four flying squadrons and a host of supporting units like the Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre. It’s also the host airbase for nearly all diplomatic engagements, as it’s located in the suburb of Centurion within the capital city’s municipality of Tshwane, only a short distance from Pretoria,” Darren Olivier told us a message.

“There are no fighter aircraft stationed at Waterkloof. The SAAF’s Gripen C/Ds and Hawk Mk120s are all at AFB Makhado in the north of the country. The Gripen and Hawk escort mentioned in the press release will likely take off from Makhado to intercept the incoming aircraft in order to give them an escort to Waterkloof. For spotters it’s not the easiest airbase, with high walls and not that many good high ground spots nearby. If the aircraft come in on on runway 01 then there are decent spots on Theron street south of the base which fall under the landing flightpath.”

The media invite provides some details about the “strong historical links with diplomatic relations established between both countries on Feb. 28, 1992”. The statement goes on to say that “The Military to Military relations between the two countries is not solely built on struggle politics but rather on fostering mutually beneficial partnerships based on common interests. It is within the context and within the framework of the agreement between the Ministries of Defensce of both countries dated June 13, 1995, that the joint unit of the AFRF [Aerospace Forces of the Russian Federation] is visiting the RSA [Republic of South Africa]”

Noteworthy, according to Olivier, this visit was originally scheduled for 2016, and was to coincide with that year’s Africa Aerospace & Defence exhibition. “At the last minute it was postponed, seemingly as a result of Russia being unable to spare Tu-160 aircraft during a key period of its operations in Syria.”

Indeed, the Tu-160 has taken part in the Air War in the skies over Syria: at least one Blackjack aircraft flew a strike mission on Nov. 17, 2015 that hit ISIL targets in Syria using Russian 3M-54 Kalibur cruise missiles launched at standoff range.

We’ve asked to Darren Olivier to give us his thoughts about the status of the relations between South Africa and Russia:

“Not as friendly as under President Zuma, but far from antagonistic,” he commented. “There is a deep recognition within the ruling ANC of the role that Russia, in the form of the former-USSR, played in supporting the group during the struggle against Apartheid. This visit however was originally scheduled for September 2016, and it’s not clear whether it indicates any significantly new direction in South African and Russian diplomacy. That being said, this should be viewed in context with the recent announcement of joint Russian-Chinese-South African naval exercises in November:

So, once again the massive Tu-160 “White Swan” (as the aircraft is nicknamed) is used as the flagship of a “diplomatic deployment” as happened in South America with three deployments to Venezuela in 2003, 2008 and 2018.

The Tu-160 Blackjack is a supersonic, variable-sweep wing heavy strategic bomber. As explained in a previous post here at The Aviationist:

The Tu-160 is a noteworthy aircraft because of its size, speed and rarity. While the U.S. cancelled its ambitious XB-70 Valkyrie super bomber program in 1969 and later developed the B-1 and low-observable B-2 along with the upcoming B-21 Raider, Russia has begun a program of updating avionics, engines and weapons systems on the Tu-160 and starting production of the upgraded bombers again. The first of the “Tu-160M2” upgrades, essentially a new aircraft built on the old planform, flew earlier this year with operational capability planned for 2023. The new Tu-160M2s will not be rebuilt, upgraded existing Tu-160s, but rather new production aircraft coming from the Tupolev plant. Russia says it will build “50” of the aircraft.

We don’t know how many aircraft are combat capable. According to most sources, no more than a handful are operational at any given time, making the Blackjack an interesting as well as rare aircraft to see, especially outside of Russia. Hopefully, some interesting photographs of the bombers during their South African tour will emerge in the following days!


About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.