This summer Russian strategic bombers flew exercise missions to the North Pole, near Alaska, and down the coast of Norway toward Great Britain and other far-off destinations. During the Cold War, such flights were routine. Russian strategic bombers such as the older Tu-95 “Bear” and supersonic Tu-160 “Black Jack,” took up positions to fire long-rang KH-55 cruise missiles at targets in the continental United States or at major strategic bases, like Guam in the Pacific Ocean. Bombers often carried nuclear weapons on board, ready to shoot immediately after getting orders (see EDM, August 2).
Such missions were officially defined as “combat duty” (boyevoye dezhurstvo) and crews were granted special combat bonuses. The same term was used to describe service on nuclear submarines on combat patrol at sea and intercontinental ballistic missile crews on duty at underground control bunkers at ICBM-silo bases. Combat duty entails the ability to use weapons, primarily nuclear, at a moment’s notice.
The KH-55 cruise missiles carry a 200-kiloton warhead and are the longest-range cruise missiles in the world. With additional fuel tanks they can fly up to 3,000 kilometers (1,850 miles). The Tu-95s typically carry up to six missiles and the Tu-160 usually has 12. The KH-55s are old weapons from Soviet stock. They do not have GPS positioning equipment and instead use an on-board radar to scan the terrain and compare it with a digital map to correct their flight path. The digital map, targeting, and flight path information must be programmed into the missile before the bomber takes off and cannot be changed in flight. To go on a mission the KH-55 must be released in a specific geographical location (the North Pole, north of Britain or other).
During the Cold War, Soviet strategic bombers were routinely intercepted and followed by Western fighter jets. Today Royal Norwegian Air Force and RAF fighters have again been scrambled to meet the Russian bombers. In a time of war, they may shoot down the intruders before they reach their launch destination.
In September 1991, President George H.W. Bush announced a unilateral disarmament initiative to fully dismantle all land-based tactical nukes, to stockpile on land all naval-based non-strategic nukes, and take off high alert all U.S. strategic bombers that were ready for immediate take-off with nukes on board. In October 1991 Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev replied with similar disarmament measures. In January 1992 Russian President Boris Yeltsin officially backed the disarmament initiative.
On August 17, speaking to journalists during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s “Peace Mission 2007” anti-terrorist exercises near Chelyabinsk, President Vladimir Putin announced, “I have decided that Russian strategic bombers will resume regular strategic combat duty.” Putin mentioned that Russia had unilaterally stopped strategic combat duty in 1992, “but others did not follow our example.” Putin announced that the same day 14 strategic bombers, support planes, and Il-78 air tankers would be on patrol (Interfax, Itar-Tass, August 17).
Colonel Alexander Drobyshevsky, head of the Air Force press service had told me earlier that long-range flights by Russian strategic bombers are planned six months in advance, and one month in advance Russia notifies foreign states that it will occupy specific air corridors over international waters. It is clear that Putin’s announcement of a resumption of strategic bomber combat duty was planned in advance to coincide with the August 16 SCO summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and the subsequent trip by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to oversee the “Peace Mission 2007” exercise. The marked increase of flight activity by Russian strategic bombers in the months before August 17 tested the force’s capability to do “combat duty” once again.
Putin’s announcement could have been prearranged to enhance the SCO’s potential as an anti-Western alliance. During the preliminary staff part of the “Peace Mission 2007” exercise in Urumchi, China, the Chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, General Yuri Baluyevsky, told journalists that last April Russia had sent all SCO governments a draft SCO military cooperation concept. Baluyevsky complained that no SCO government has responded (Itar-Tass, August 10). The SCO summit in Bishkek also turned out much less anti-Western in tone than Moscow had anticipated (Kommersant, August 17).
According to official Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (START) data, Russia has 14 Tu-160 and 64 Tu-95 bombers, but not all of them can fly. Since Putin’s order to resume regular combat duty patrols take place several times a month, with less than 20 bombers each time. The Bush administration has shrugged off this potential new threat. Russia still has thousands of ICBM warheads aimed at the United States at any time and the possible deployment of old bombers with several more is apparently considered insignificant.
The commander of Russia’s strategic bomber force, General Pavel Androsov, further defused the situation by announcing that the bombers do not have nuclear or conventional weapons on board during patrols — “only training weapons.” Androsov in effect repudiated Putin’s order by announcing: “We are flying air patrols, not combat patrols” (Interfax, August 27). Apparently, the voluntary 1991 disarmament agreement still stands and Putin’s hard Cold War-style talk is mostly empty rhetoric aimed at SCO partners and domestic consumption.