07 April 2019

Russia- is the strategic bombers dislocation to Crimea justified?

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

Image source: Mediafax

On 18th of March 2019, the Russian parliamentarian, Viktor Bondarev, president of the Defence and Security Committee from the State Duma, has stated that the Russian Federation plans to relocate Tu-22M3 strategic bombers squadrons at the air base Gvardeyskoe, from Crimea. The Russian dignitary also stated that the measure comes after the American anti-missile shield’s elements were deployed in Deveselu, Romania.

The statement was spread in the international media and it initially seemed legit, given that Bondarev was the chief of the Air Forces between 2012 and 2015. Then, the information was disclaimed by the Defence and Security Committee, which denied the existence of Iskander-M systems in the peninsula, mentioning that Bondarev’s statements have been misinterpreted.

The piece of information about dislocating Tu-22M3 in Crimea is not new. In the summer of 2014, shortly after Crimea’s annexation, there were already rumours about upgrading the Gvardeyskoe airfield (around 20 km North from Simferopol). The information proved to be wrong. After that, during the strategic-operative exercises, Tu-22M3 has been temporary deployed in Crimea as well, as part of the scenario, and the press, again wrongly, has talked about moving them permanently in the peninsula.

If strategic bombers would be dislocated in Crimea, Russia would like to send a strong message – that it is willing to challenge West’s influence spheres from Middle East to North Africa. On the other hand, the deployment of Tu-22M3 in Crimea would not bring great operational advantages.

A brief history for the strategic bombers

These types of aircrafts firstly appeared in the World War I, when they were used to destroy strategic targets in the depth of enemy’s defence (critical infrastructure elements, military installations, political-military decisional spots etc.). In the Cold War period, once the atomic weapons have appeared, the development of air platforms able to carry nuclear missiles or bombs on longer distances was one of big powers’ priorities. After that, as the technological progress of air refuel technologies has been developed, the strategic bomber became sort of old-fashioned, because the nuclear armament can be carried, today, even at intercontinental distances, by a large series of multirole airplanes and fighters. Currently, besides Russia, only the US (Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, Boeing B-52 Stratofortress and Rockwell B-1 Lancer) and China (Xian H-6) still have these types of strategic bombers.

Russian strategic bombers

The Russian Federation currently has three types of strategic bombers, in the Strategic Aviation system (Long Range Aviation/LRA).

Tupolev Tu-95 entered service in 1956 and it is planned for it to remain operational after upgrades, at least until 2040. Currently, LRA has an upgraded version, Tupolev Tu-95MS (NATO code: Bear). Tu-95MS is a turboprop with subsonic speed, 15.000 km range of action. It can carry 15 tons bombs and conventional or nuclear load missiles (in an optimal configuration, it can hit 8 Kh-101/102 missiles, on the wings under the beam, with a range of action estimated to 2000 -10.000 km). It is estimated that 70 bombers are operational, in two air bases (Engels-2, Saratov Land, with a possible use in Europe and Middle East strategic directions; Ukrainka, Amur Land, for Middle East operations, especially China) and a training centre close to Moscow.

Tupolev Tu-160 (NATO code: Blackjack) entered service in 1987. It is a supersonic bomber, with a variable geometry wing, also currently the biggest fight aircraft (260 tons at maximum load). It has 12.300 kilometres autonomy and it can carry, internally, up to 45 tons of conventional and nuclear munition, including 6 Kh-101/102 missiles, some of the most performant in the Russian arsenal. In the basic configuration, Tu-160 carries 12 nuclear short range of action missiles Kh-15, with a range of action of around 330 km. In 2015, LRA had 16 Tu-160 Blackjack, dislocated also on the Engels-2 air base from Saratov.

Tupolev Tu-22M3 (NATO code: Backfire-C) is the supersonic strategic bomber that, apparently, Russia intends to dislocate in Crimea. It entered service in 1989, being the smallest Russian bomber (112 tons, with fight load), having the smallest autonomy as well (4.500-5.000 km). It can carry up to 24 conventional and nuclear munition tons, including 4 Kh-47M2 Kinjal missiles, with a range of action of more than 2.000 km.

And the Kinjal missiles …

Kinjal (also: Kinzhal) is one of the new 6 Russian strategic armament systems, presented by the Russian president himself, Vladimir Putin, on 1st of March. Kinjal is a hypersonic anti-ship missile (10 times bigger than the speed of sound), but it can strike also terrestrial targets, dedicated to MiG-31k interception aircrafts and Tu-22M3 strategic bombers. The American anti-missile system from Deveselu was, undoubtedly, considered by the Russians as a potential target for the Kinjal missiles. In March 2019, the press has informed about the possible dislocation of around 100 missiles form this category, in the air base from the South Military Region.

How can Russia use Tu-22M3 bombers

Currently, LRA has 63 Tu-22M3, in two air bases, Shaykovka (Kaluga Land) and Belaya (Irkutsk Land) and a training centre close to Moscow. The Shaykovka regiment (around 300 km South-East from Moscow) covers the West and South strategic directions. The Irkutsk regiment (more than 5.000 km East of Moscow) is mainly targeting China.

The aircraft is about to be upgraded, the Russian Minister of Defence currently having arranging contract for 30 Tu-22M3 aircrafts (the electronics being almost 80% changed, a new NV-45 radar, GLONASS navigation system, electronic war countermeasures). The first aircraft was already delivered to LRA in December 2018.

Comparing to the other two Russian strategic bombers, the Tu-22M3 has certain particularities, although its shares with them the main mission: nuclear strikes over strategic objectives in the depth of NATO’s territory. Firstly, it is dedicated to attack NATO’s maritime groups, either the NATO Standing Naval Maritime Group/ SNMGs), or the American or allied carriers. Secondly, the Tu22M3 is more adequate for the tactical missions, like reconnaissance and attack terrestrial objectives, as it could have been seen in actions from Afghanistan (the 80s), Chechnya (1995), and Georgia (2008) or, recently, Syria. In all these cases, the aircrafts have took off from their airfields, have executed the mission and came back their main bases (although in Syria, lately, the Tu-22M3 has started to act from an airfield from Iran also). These are the reasons why some military analysts see this aircraft as “under-strategic”.

In the confrontation with NATO’s maritime forces, the Tu-22M3 has as advantage the long range weaponry. Even if we ignore the Kinjal missile (supposing that it was not tested in fight yet and it would need more time and supplementary tests to be completely operational), Tu-22M3 has the Kh-32 anti-ship missile. It has a range of 620 marine miles, able to be launched from outside the range of missiles’ carried by F/1-18 Super Hornet American aircrafts (range estimated to around 550 marine miles, including aircrafts’ autonomy, as well as the most sophisticated air-to-air missile’s strike AIM-120 D AMRAAM). Also, the flight altitude, which is around 40 km, maintains Kh-31 outside the RIM-174/SM-6 anti-air missiles strike from the AEGIS systems of US’s surface ships (range of 34.000 meters).

Advantages and disadvantages of permanent deployment of Tu-22M3 in Crimea

Such a move has the advantage to send a clear message that Russia is capable to project its force in its area of interests. Each time this information got to the media, the West has reacted. It is worthily raising the question on whether we are witnessing another of the philological war actions that Russia has developed lately, under Putin’s leadership.

From the military perspective, deploying Tu-22M3 to Gvardeyskoe or any other airfield in Crimea it obviously increases, with hundreds of kilometres, the range of action of these strategic bombers on south strategic direction. However, we can hardly talk about an overwhelming operational advantage. The aircraft can have the same effectiveness also being launched from its current airfields or other airfields from the South Military Region, which would not be that exposed as the ones in Crimea. The aforementioned figures are indicating that it is not necessary to bring the bombers to the „contact line”, as Tu-22M3 can launch their missiles from inside the Russian Federation air space. In a possible confrontation with NATO, any naval group from the Aegean Sea or Eastern Mediterranean Sea, but also any terrestrial military objective from Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania is in this bomber’s range of action, if it would be launched, for example, from the border with Belarus or the border with East of Ukraine (now controlled by the Pro-Russian separatists).

The permanent deployment in Crimea would expose the Tu-22M3 to strikes launched from allied naval or air platforms from the Black Sea, the distance between Bosporus and the peninsula being smaller than 500 kilometres. The manoeuvre is not justified from this point of view, all the more so Russia already has Anti-Access Area Denial/ A2AD systems in Crimea, like the Bastion coast missile systems or Kalibr systems from land or submarine naval platforms.

We should also consider the financial effort for Gvardeyskoe airfield upgrade which would involve for operating Tu-22M3 (a new runaway, supplementary arrangement works for suspenders, shield for the aircrafts, close navigation installation, lightening beacons systems).

Conclusions

Strictly military speaking, one can say that the dislocation of strategic bombers in Crimea is not justified, and the information that continues to emerge on this matter is just part of Moscow’s strategy used for years, called by the West “hybrid war”. So, from this point of view, such manoeuvre will hardly end on short and medium term.

Such an option was most probably presented to the Russian president, with arguments and counterarguments. President Putin probably did not approve the plan, but he did approve for strategic communication on this matter, as the high officials of the Russian states would hardly make such statements on their own.

However, let us not forget that we cannot take Russia for granted, which has surprised specialists and non-experts with its geopolitical (Crimea, East of Ukraine, the night intervention from Syria, now Venezuela) and military movements (the Kalibr missile launch from the Caspian Sea, the strategic bombers flight over the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea). This is why, even such a move, which may seem counter-productive, would not be excluded by the political-military planners and strategists.   

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