On November 24 and 25 two Russian Tu-95MS strategic bombers flew long range patrolling missions above neutral waters in the Arctic to the Atlantic Oceans. Russian Air Force spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Drik said that during the 16 hour missions that featured mid-air refueling from Il-78 tankers, NATO F-15 and RAF Tornado’s followed the Russian bombers. Russian strategic aviation flights, according to Drik, “strictly comply with the international rules of using airspace over neutral waters without violating the borders of foreign countries” (Interfax, November 25). The UK defense ministry and the RAF dispute this, arguing that while these flights pose no direct military threat, and remain in international airspace, the Russian authorities consistently fail to inform the relevant air traffic control bodies of their movements; raising civil aviation flight safety concern since these military patrols transit some of the busiest air routes (Russia: a New Confrontation? House of Commons Report, July, 2009).
Last month, two Tu-160 strategic bombers successfully performed an air patrol mission of “unprecedented complexity.” Taking off from Engels airbase their route followed the country’s northern border into the Pacific, before returning across Russia’s southern borders after twice being refueled in mid-air: the 20 hours flight duration exceeded previous missions during the past twenty years (ITAR-TASS, November 20).
However, Colonel Anatoliy Tsyganok, the head of the Military Forecasting Center at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow considers such flights militarily questionable. He referred to the Tu-160 and Tu-95 strategic bombers as “morally and technically obsolete,” reflecting the technology of the 1950’s to 1980’s. Their designated missions were to achieve key objectives using nuclear and conventional weapons in distant geographical locations and deep within any theater of operations. The Tu-95 entered service with Long-Range Aviation units in 1956, while production stopped in 1992. It will remain in service into the next decade, currently being refitted with upgraded onboard electronic weaponry and a new generation of “precision strategic missiles.” On the other hand, the Tu-160 was a “survivor” from the contraction in the Soviet defense industry in late 1980’s (Svobodnaya Pressa, October 30).
Indeed, Tsyganok believes the type of air patrolling mission now being conducted by strategic aviation is obsolete, since it has “fallen behind weapons-related development. It is highly vulnerable in the air and on the ground, it is dependent on the availability of refueling aircraft, and using it as a means of weapons delivery to the point of use takes up too much time. In an actual combat situation these aircraft would have been destroyed by enemy missiles long before they were able to deliver their retaliatory strike.” Their dependence on the presence of tanker aviation and advance prepared airfields clearly restricts its potential. In fact, any theoretical military justification only relates to supporting Russia’s presence on the Arctic shelf, after a military satellite tasked with surveillance of this and adjoining areas was accidently brought down two years ago. Tsyganok considers the underlying reasons for the resumption of such flights as purely symbolic: “In my view, moreover, the current patrolling is more of a PR exercise than a demonstration of real capabilities,” he noted (Svobodnaya Pressa, October 30).
The Commander-in-Chief (CINC) of the Russian Air Force (VVS) Colonel-General Aleksandr Zelin has repeatedly promised the modernization of the inventory. From 1994 to 2003 the VVS did not receive a single new combat aircraft. While Zelin was the deputy CINC from August 2002 to May 2007, on numerous occasions he publicly promoted such modernization. Meanwhile, his recent statements have become increasingly pessimistic in relation to procuring new platforms and upgrading existing ones (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 31). On August 5, Zelin stated: “In connection with the increased cost of creating and operating new-generation aircraft as well as the cost of their mastery by flight personnel, it can be expected that with the forecasted level of funding the numerical makeup of Air Force aviation may decline substantially by 2025. In this case manned VVS aviation will be incapable of performing the requisite scope of missions in a local war as required by program documents on national security and the military doctrine” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 10).
On November 26, Zelin said that he intends setting a date in December for a delayed maiden flight of the fifth generation fighter jet. He will visit its manufacturer in Komsomolsk-on-Amur to monitor progress. “I shall look into the state of affairs myself, and then it will be clear when the plane will make the first flight,” Zelin told a press conference at the defense ministry. He pointedly refused to specify when the flight might occur, which was previously scheduled before the end of 2009. During the same press conference he was scathing about the defense industry offering the air force inferior quality unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s), saying that he refused to certify them. He highlighted his dissatisfaction with Russian designed UAV’s “either with the speed, or flight altitude or the resolution capacity of their equipment. It is a sheer crime to make operational unmanned aircraft without the required tactical and technical characteristics.” Consequently, Zelin said that the VVS was dependent on Israel, having procured a dozen of their UAV’s, but admitted that the Israelis will not share advanced technology in this area (ITAR-TASS, November 26).
Nonetheless, Zelin stated that by January 1, 2010, the VVS will complete its structural reform from regiments to bases. In its planning stage, the VVS drew heavily on the experience of the Belarusian air force, which was similarly restructured several years ago. The reform itself is focused on consolidating the better trained units to intensify combat training, enhancing the proportion of combat ready aircraft and saving considerable funds (RIA Novosti, November 26).
Meanwhile, the resumption of long range strategic bomber flights was ordered in August 2007 by then President Vladimir Putin and has continued since. The underlying political message was calibrated toward declaring that Russia is “back,” and the country’s security elite appear to regard such flights as symbolically important. Equally, they appear aimed at disguising the difficulties facing the Russian defense industry in arresting the decline of the VVS.