Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 210

On November 5, two ex-Soviet strategic bombers–a Tu-160 “Blackjack” supersonic bomber and a turbo-prop Tu-95MS missile carrier–flew from Ukraine to the Long-Range Aviation base at Engels, near Saratov. They were the first installment in a deal which will bring to Russia a total of eight Tu-160s and three Tu-95s out of the forty-four Soviet bombers Ukraine inherited following the break-up of the Soviet Union. The two sides have been dickering over these planes for eight years and appeared to be close to a deal in 1995, but the Russians never really seemed to have their heart in the negotiations: the aircraft were too run down, they said, or the Ukrainians wanted too much for them, and so forth.

But times have changed. As their relations with the United States and NATO have soured, the Russians have placed far more emphasis on their strategic nuclear forces than they did in 1995. The weakest link in their strategic nuclear triad has been the bomber component. The eight Tu-160s in particular will give a strong boost to this force, more than doubling it. The Blackjack is bigger and faster than any bomber in the American inventory. It can carry twelve Kh-55 nuclear-armed cruise missiles. The Kh-55 has a 3,000 kilometer range, allowing the Tu-160 to launch its weapons far out over the ocean, well beyond the range of intercepting fighters. As part of the recent deal, Ukraine is also providing the Russians with 500 of these missiles. While these would not have nuclear warheads, the Russians can easily modify them. Despite the severe budget constraints, they are also developing an even more capable cruise missile for their strategic bombers. Last year a Tu-160 launched a prototype Kh-101 missile–a very accurate weapon with a range of 5,000 kilometers, an extremely small radar cross-section making it very hard to detect, which can be armed with either a conventional or nuclear warhead. While propeller-driven, the Tu-95 comes close to matching the U.S. B-52 in performance. The three picked by the Russians from the Ukrainian inventory are less than ten years old. They, too, can carry the Kh-55 and will be modified to carry the larger Kh-101.

The Russian air force got these planes for a song. In return for the bombers, Russia will deduct US$285 million from the reported US$1.8 billion Ukraine owes for Russian natural gas. The Ministry of Defense is out no money at all in the deal and will not even have to provide the transport aircraft once offered in exchange for the bombers. Of course, the military will have to pay for the maintenance, modification and operation of the planes, but they would have not been able to improve their strategic posture so rapidly in any other way at any price. The ministry reportedly even found US$45 million in its budget to give to the Gorbunov factory in Kazan to complete one of several unfinished Tu-160s at its plant. That plane should be turned over to the air force next year.

The motive behind the acquisition of the Ukrainian bombers was certainly primarily to boost Russia’s nuclear posture in response to the deteriorating strategic relationship with the U.S. as exemplified, in Russian eyes, by the Senate rejection of the comprehensive nuclear test ban, and what they see as American plans to withdraw from the antiballistic missile treaty by building a nation-wide missile defense system. However, the Russian air force will also welcome the potential conventional capability in these bombers. They were impressed with the role played by U.S. heavy bombers equipped with precision-guided munitions in the Gulf War and most recently during the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia. The Tu-160/Kh-101 combination will give them a similar capability. (Itar-Tass, November 6; AP, November 5; Kommersant-DAILY, August 7; Jane’s Intelligence Review, May 1)