Its bomber fleet once brought Russia power and prestige, but lack of cash promises a bleak future

Strategic bombers, Soviet relics, are still a cornerstone of Russia's post-Cold War armed forces. But unless issues such as training, fuel and spares shortages are addressed, this once prestigious Russian hallmark faces an inglorious future.

The poor condition of Russia's strategic air forces is the result of years of under-funding and manpower cuts.

Despite these problems, Russia is keen to maintain an airworthy conventional and nuclear bomber force and plans a programme of upgrades to its fleet. While a new design is believed to have been in development for several years, it is uncertain whether the aircraft will ever fly.

In 1993, the Russian Security Council approved a draft security doctrine stressing the importance of air power in future rapid reactions and tactical battlefield support.

This thinking was underlined in 1999, when Russia published its new security doctrine. This re-emphasised the importance of nuclear deterrence, which includes both land-based and submarine-launched intercontinental mobile ballistic missiles. The nuclear deterrent is seen as an important guarantor of security, given the condition of Russia's conventional forces.

To this end, Dalnaya Aviatsiya - Long Range Aviation - was reorganised into the 37th Strategic Air Army in May 1998.

The new force is tasked with the delivery of conventional and nuclear air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). It contains two divisions - the 22nd Guards Red Banner Donbass Heavy Bomber Division and the 79th Guards Heavy Bomber Division.

Both divisions have five regiments of nuclear- and conventionally armed Tupolev Tu-95MS6/MS16 Bear strategic bombers, a regiment of nuclear-armed Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers, and four regiments of conventionally armed Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire medium-range bombers. Both divisions are supported by Ilyushin Il-76 Midas in-flight refuelling aircraft from the 213th Guards Regiment. Russian military sources say the fleet comprises 208 aircraft, including tankers and trainers.

Despite Moscow re-emphasising Russia's nuclear deterrent, the 37th Air Army is in a poor state. Since 1992, the force has lost 22,000 personnel, falling to a complement of 3,000 in 1998. According to Dr Mark Galeotti, a Russian armed forces expert at Keele University in the UK, it has also suffered chronic under-funding since 1987, when Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev slashed the air force budget.

The end of the Cold War left many of the more sophisticated bombers at forward air bases in the former Soviet republics - principally Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Kazakhstan was home to 27 Tu-95MS6/MS16s when the Berlin Wall fell. Moscow has been able to negotiate with Kazakhstan the return to Russia of all the aircraft, along with 370 Raduga Kh-55SM (AS-15B Kent) ALCM nuclear warheads.

Negotiations with Ukraine have been more problematic. Kiev asked an extortionate price for 19 Tu-160s and 27 Tu-95MS6/MS16s, demanding 2 billion roubles ($64 million) for each Tu-160.

Under an agreement in mid-1999, Kiev offered to transfer the aircraft if Moscow cancelled part of Ukraine's $2 billion gas debt. Russia eventually received eight Tu-160s and three Tu-95s. The other aircraft were either scrapped or destroyed as part of Russia's START II arms reduction treaty obligations. In October 2000, the returned aircraft were declared airworthy, joining the 22nd Guards Bomber Division.

The 37th Air Army faces basing problems, however. The war in Chechnya has forced the air force to close its strategic bomber base at Mozdok, North Ossetia, only 50km (27nm) from the province, following security concerns. In 1998, Mozdok's Tu-95s were transferred to Engels, while the 316 nuclear warheads at the base were distributed among other 37th Air Army facilities.

Training crisis

By 1998, the training crisis within the 37th Air Army had become acute. The force received only 6% of the funds necessary to maintain combat readiness. Aircrews were said to average 20-21h flying a year, compared to the 25h a month of their US counterparts.

The crisis is compounded by acute spares and fuel shortages suffered throughout the Russian armed forces, reducing aircraft availability to as low as 40%. In 2001, of the 13 billion roubles required for repairs, only 2 billion roubles was allocated. Ultimately, this could shorten the life of the 37th Air Army fleet. Crews flying the Tu-160 suffer shortages of pressure suits and oxygen masks. Maintenance for these aircraft is described as "prehistoric".

Plans remain to upgrade the Tu-22M3. Tupolev said in the mid-1990s that it planned to upgrade all of the type in the 37th Air Army and the Russian navy air arm. The upgrade programme includes new terrain-following and terrain-avoidance radar, improved navigation equipment and defensive systems. The package is intended to extend service life until 2020.

The oldest type in Russia's fleet, the Tu-95, is also set for improvements. The MS6 variant can carry six Kh-55 ALCMs on a rotary launcher inside the aircraft's weapons bay, while the MS16 can deploy 16 such missiles, six on the rotary launcher and 10, in pairs, on five external hardpoints. The MS6 will be upgraded to carry either eight Raduga Kh-101 or 14 Kh-65 (a Kh-55 derivative) ALCMs.

The Tu-95MS6/MS16 will serve beyond 2007, although for how long is unclear. The Bear is the most numerous of Russia's nuclear bombers and its retirement would leave the Tu-160 as the sole nuclear delivery platform (the Tu-22M3 is prevented from carrying nuclear weapons by START II). The Tu-160 is a significantly more expensive aircraft to procure and operate than the Tu-95.

In April 1994, President Boris Yeltsin ordered the closure of the Tu-160 production line at Kazan. However, the line was re-opened in 1997 and in July 1999 plans were announced under the military production programme to complete one of the remaining Tu-160s, which was left half-finished at the factory.

This aircraft was delivered in May 2000. A second Tu-160 was under construction at the plant in December last year. Russia plans to have 25 operational Tu-160s, allowing the formation of a second regiment by 2003. In addition to constructing new aircraft, Tupolev chairman and general designer Igor Shevchuk announced in April last year that a Tu-160 upgrade programme is planned to "maintain readiness and upgrade onboard equipment and armament options".


Reports have circulated for some time that Russia will design and build a new bomber. In 1983, Sukhoi was given the task of designing a Tu-22M3 replacement. Sukhoi's T-60S, or Joint Continental Bomber, is thought to have been under development ever since. Little is known about the design, although it is thought to incorporate low observable technology and have two thrust-vectoring turbofans.

The aircraft, should it ever enter service, will carry six Kh-101s together with Kh-55s and Raduga Kh-15s (AS-16 Kickback), together with conventional precision-guided munitions. The project is officially secret, although some sources reported that a prototype was ready for flight test in 1996 and would enter service next year. There is no evidence, however, that the aircraft has even left the drawing board.

Galeotti says Russia's lack of hard currency means that its military aircraft are increasingly designed with a view towards exports. Russia's security considerations make it unlikely that a nuclear-capable bomber would be made available for export and "the difficulty in exporting a strategic bomber pushes such a project further down the queue".

Russia is considering new weapons for its current aircraft, however, and several ALCM projects are under way. The 37th Air Army plans to procure a more advanced version of its Kh-55s. The Kh-55SE is understood to have an improved guidance system and a prototype was reportedly developed in 1996.

Reports have also emerged about the new Kh-65 ALCM. The missile is thought to have an active-radar sensor, a range of several hundred kilometres and a 600-800kg (1,320-1,760lb) launch weight. An anti-shipping variant, the Kh-65S, is also rumoured to be under construction. Documents released at the 1992 Moscow air show described the Kh-65 as a tactical derivative of the Kh-101 strategic system.

The Kh-101 ALCM is believed to have been deployed, after a Tu-160 fired one of the missiles during an exercise in October 1998. The weapon has interchangeable warheads containing a direct-fuzed, high explosive device, or a variable-yield thermonuclear device. It is thought to be a subsonic, capable of travelling at speeds of Mach 0.77 and weighing 2,200-2,400kg.

The development of new ALCMs indicates that the force is dispensing with free-fall nuclear bombs, although a small number of strategic and tactical weapons might still exist. The missiles offer the attraction of stand-off ranges and do not require the bomber to enter hostile airspace.

The 37th Air Army's future is uncertain. The force is important for Russian prestige as Russia and the USA are the only two countries to maintain a strategic bomber force. Andrew Brookes, air analyst at the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies, says the 37th Air Army is one of Russia's "few remaining symbols of high office".

The Russian air force's wish-list probably features more tactical, ground attack aircraft than strategic bombers. Galeotti says the air war in Chechnya has illustrated the former's importance, which, coupled with the requirement for exports, make it less likely that Russia will procure a new bomber. In any case, the 37th Air Army's procurement budget will be absorbed by its upgrade programmes and new weapons systems, while extra cash will be spent to keep at least part of the force combat-ready.

Source: Flight International