Category Archives: Air Forces

Tanker Shortage

Russian aerial refueling

Writing in Izvestiya on December 26, Ilya Kramnik concluded that a shortage of aerial tankers is damaging the readiness of Russia’s air forces. He makes a convincing argument that Moscow has upgraded its air power but failed to provide the logistical support to operate it successfully.

The last half of his article is translated below.

“The New Reality”

“The fact that the country didn’t have the money to maintain large air forces to ensure the necessary composition of forces in any direction¹ became clear in the 1980s, and by then all future multipurpose fighters and frontal bombers had gotten the requirement for aerial refueling in their technical tasks. The transfer of aviation units from one direction to another, including with the help of aerial refueling, looked like a quicker means to support the concentration of forces than a transfer using intermediate airfields, and certainly much cheaper than maintaining the necessary number of aviation groupings in all directions.”

“The USSR’s collapse ruined practically all plans to renew military aviation, but in the end new aircraft entered series production. Besides Tu-160 and Tu-95MS strategic bombers, A-50 AEW aircraft and long-range Tu-142M reconnaissance aircraft kept in the order-of-battle, Su-34 frontal bombers, Su-30SM, Su-35, MiG-29SMT fighters being built for the Russian air forces today are being equipped with aerial refueling systems.”

“The above-mentioned Su-24M, Su-24MR reconnaissance aircraft, MiG-31B fighter-interceptors, including also the modernized MiG-31BM, were equipped with these systems. Of course, the fifth generation Su-57 fighter is also outfitted with an aerial refueling system.”

“Of the more or less new aircraft not having the refueling system were several dozen modernized Su-27SM, and the largest number of ‘unrefuelable’ frontal aviation aircraft are the Su-25 attack aircraft.”

“One way or another, the Russian air forces made into part of the Aerospace Forces [VKS] in 2015 have hundreds of aircraft equipped with the aerial refueling system, and this number is growing. Most likely, judging by everything, even though earlier deprived of this capability in the framework of strategic arms limitation the Tu-22M will receive it during the modernization of the Tu-22M3M variant. Besides this, the ‘strat’ inventory will grow also on account of restarting Tu-160 bomber production in the Tu-160M2 variant.”

“But there are no tankers. All this grandeur falls on one regiment of tankers with 15 Il-78 or Il-78M aircraft built on the base of the Il-76 transport aircraft.”

“The prospective growth in this number doesn’t inspire optimism because of the extremely difficult development of the new Il-76MD-90A series viewed as a platform for a tanker, and the air forces’ demand for transport aircraft themselves, and for airborne radars being built on this platform, the number of tankers clearly won’t turn out to be large. It would be optimism to suppose that the United Aircraft Corporation could deliver more than fifteen Il-78M-90A aircraft over the next 10 years, which in the best case would allow for increasing the number of aerial tankers in the air forces to 30 aircraft, including the Il-78 and Il-78M aircraft it already has.”

“Alternative Decisions”

“And 15 or 30 tankers is very few considering that the number of aircraft capable of being refueled in mid-air will grow. Moreover, taking into account the shrinking inventory of military-transport aviation, it’s possible that refueling will be required for them in the future in order to increase the inventory’s capabilities without increasing its numbers.”

“In the final accounting, even the USA with its greater military budget practices the refueling of transports, while the typical distances of a possible transfer in Russia’s case can turn out to be a little shorter.”

“Air forces strategic mobility is one of the main priorities of military organizational development, the transfer of aviation units across the entire country is a characteristic sign of the greater part of large exercises over the last fifteen years, and aerial refueling is an integral part of these exercises. So the tanker inventory isn’t enough and can’t be enough under present circumstances, as Izvestiya’s interlocutor in Russia’s VKS described the situation.”

“Tankers are actively used in the course of the Syrian campaign, to support the transport of equipment from Russia to Syria and back, as well as in place: it’s well-known that fighters and bombers regularly carry out missions while on “air patrol” requiring many hours of loitering over the combat area.”

“In conditions of growing activity by Long-Range Aviation, and also the deployment of Russian air units in the North and Far East with their huge expanses, the requirement for tankers has become greater still, both on the strategic and tactical levels.”

“One variant for fulfilling this mission is a return to earlier put-off plans for the production of a tanker on the base of the Il-96 airliner. In the event that the military department turned again to it, this would allow for solving two problems: both to justify expenditures to restart the Il-96 without making it into a commercial airliner for civil aviation, and also, possibly, to avoid the requirement to use Il-76MD-90A platforms as tankers.”

“A potential tanker based on the Il-96, given its dimensions and cargo capacity, could meet the requirement of strategic aviation in the future with an order volume in the realm of 30-40 planes in the coming fifteen years.” 

“On the tactical level it would be possible to use existing the Il-78/Il-78M, given the essential repair and modernization of these aircraft, and besides this, the existing Il-76TD/MD aircraft in storage which haven’t used up a significant part of their service lives and allowing for reworking into Il-78M variants could act as a reserve. This would allow for growing the Il-78M inventory sufficiently quickly by several dozen aircraft.”

“In the event the condition of the Il-76 ‘from storage’ is too poor to use it as a tanker, more exotic but fully realizable decisions are possible: for example, development of a Tu-204S ‘tanker’ variant — the cargo version of the Tu-204/214 aircraft, the passenger cabin of which in this case will be used for the placement of additional fuel tanks. This is an established and serially produced type, on which the fuel supply of the tanker variant could exceed 60 tons, that will fully guarantee the requirements of tactical aviation.”

“Since the presence or absence of tankers of a such class can determine the presence/absence of multipurpose fighter squadrons at the necessary place at the necessary time, similar projects have direct economic sense, allowing us to not chase after the number of extremely expensive modern combat aircraft (of which quite a lot are required), increasing the capabilities of aviation sub-units by buying relatively cheap (compared with combat aircraft) aerial tankers based on commercial aircraft.” 

“There is a need for this in any case, with the current number in the tanker fleet its capabilities are largely nominal.”

Kramnik makes good (and obvious) points, but there are other things worth knowing to be thrown in here.

The day after Kramnik’s article, Ulyanovsk-based Aviastar-SP announced that its “convertible” Il-78M-90A tanker has entered flight testing.

Il-78M-90A

Presumably the Il-78M-90A is the same as the new Il-76MD-90A, but equipped to accommodate fuel storage tanks in its cargo bay and refuel other aircraft when not deployed as a transport.

TVZvezda offered video from inside the new transport/tanker.

Visiting Aviastar in August, Deputy Defense Minister and arms tsar Aleksey Krivoruchko said the Russian MOD is considering a contract with the firm for 14 Il-78M-90A tankers to be delivered by 2027. He also indicated that number might grow.

So Kramnik’s call about maybe getting to a fleet of about 30 new and old tankers sounds about right. But, as recently as 2013, the Russian air force was talking about acquiring 30 new tankers.

By the by, the USAF operates something north of 450 tankers, and that’s counting only KC-10 and KC-135 aircraft.

¹ Направление or direction in the military sense of a strategic axis or the Soviet/Russian concept of western strategic direction, south-western strategic direction, etc.

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22 + 35 > 57

While the Pentagon frets over its chances against China or Russia, Vzglyad’s Mikhail Bolshakov writes about why the Russian air forces would lose a battle with the United States.

Russia’s purported fifth-generation Su-57 fighter — yet to enter series production — might (as the VKS and OKB Sukhoy insist) be superior to American F-22 and F-35 fighters, but Bolshakov says the U.S. would still win.

F-35

Sukhoy chief designer Mikhail Strelets claims the Su-57 combines and surpasses the capabilities of the F-22 and F-35 in one fighter. The choice of the index 57 — sum of 22 and 35, he says, was a coincidence but still indicative. 

However, Bolshakov points out, the U.S. has 187 F-22 and 320 F-35 aircraft in its operational inventory at present. Russia has no Su-57 fighters in line units.

Su-57

The F-22 is 28 years old, and the F-35 at 18 is still suffering growing pains. And Russia, Bolshakov concludes, has clearly not lost its ability to design and produce modern combat aircraft. It built a competitive fighter in a short period of time.

Lacking U.S. levels of funding and with few rubles for weapons development, Russia adopted a “small step” approach. First and foremost, Sukhoy modernized existing fourth-generation fighter designs, developing “transitional” so-called generation 4++ aircraft on the base of the successful Soviet Su-27. This led to multirole Su-30 and Su-35 fighters and the Su-34 fighter-bomber. Rival MiG was not as successful updating its MiG-29 and that’s why the MiG-35 light fighter still hasn’t been produced.

Since 1991, Sukhoy has produced 118 Su-34, 630 Su-30, and 84 Su-35 aircraft. The problem is most of them were for export and didn’t go to Russia’s air forces. According to Bolshakov, Russia has 108 Su-34, 194 Su-30, and 70 Su-35. It’s not well-known how many of these aircraft are combat ready. So, even accounting for Moscow’s fourth-generation fighters, Russia’s air forces are significantly inferior in numbers to those of the U.S., and especially of NATO, he concludes.

Compounding the problem of low numbers is a tendency to spread new aircraft over the entire force, creating headaches in pilot training, parts supply, and maintenance and repair. Regiments have to plan for retraining pilots when they don’t know when they will actually get new planes. Meanwhile, they have to be ready for combat missions in the old ones.

In contrast to current practice of doling out new aircraft by the teaspoon, Soviet air regiments and divisions used to get dozens and hundreds, so in two or three years, units would be combat capable in new planes. Bolshakov writes:

“Today with bravado they announce supplies of two, three, four new aircraft to this or that regiment — not even squadrons! Of the entire regiment, in all several pilots learn the new equipment, the rest have to suffice with old, worn-out equipment.”

To top things off, most Russian air regiments since the mid-1990s have operated with two squadrons, not three as in Soviet times.

Bolshakov sums up saying the real equation is 187 + 320 = 0, and Russia’s task is to turn that zero into 50, 100, or 200 through consistent, well-planned efforts. The country needs to reequip its fighter aviation without “small steps,” “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” or “temporary solutions” that somehow become permanent.

The Russian MOD certainly doesn’t like to hear the state of affairs aired this way. But a journalistic smack-in-the-face is more realistic and useful than an entire collection of propagandistic Mil.ru, RIAN, or TASS reports on systems entering the forces today. Maybe the issue is political. The Kremlin doesn’t want the press saying that rearmament may not be going so smoothly.

Bolshakov wasn’t focused on the U.S., so leavening is required if we want some “net assessment” of air power. The quickest glance at the Western press shows the USAF has its hands full with keeping 50 percent of its F-22s  flying at a moment’s notice. The F-35, more computer than plane,  presents its own maintenance and readiness challenges.

Aircraft inventory is important, yes. But so are operational readiness, flying time, tactical training, and especially employment scenarios. The USAF is inherently expeditionary. It will fight in someone else’s backyard. Every battle will be an away game. Russia’s air forces will usually be right next door to any conflict involving them. And Russia’s tradition is more air defense and homeland protection.

Parlous State of VTA (Revisited)

A reader’s query for more on VTA elicited this response from yours truly. It goes beyond transport aircraft and might be worth sharing.

The An-124 was devised at a time when Moscow wanted to compete with Washington throughout the Third World. The Il-76 was more generally useful. Built to service the VDV but good for lots of uses. Just limited in what it could carry. Falichev had surprisingly little to say about the Il-76MD-90A or Il-76MDM — programs that may be struggling. As if there weren’t way too much on the plate already, VTA also has to think about a new medium transport possibly the Il-114 or Il-214 (Il-276). And lots of Il-112V to replace An-12s and An-26s.

With all the attention on S-400s, Kinzhals, and 100-megaton nuclear torpedoes, it’s easy to overlook basics of military power that can be used — things like transport aircraft. Fact is Russia having trouble coming up with the money and industrial capability to produce nuclear subs, new tanks, the Su-57, transports, etc. At least on any reasonable timetable. Hence all the media focus on wonder weapons to deter the U.S. Today’s Kremlin may very well find itself headed for the same dead end as in the 1980s — unable to find the resources for full-spectrum superpower arms racing.

This isn’t to say Russia can’t be a smart effective competitor. It definitely can, witness Syria and Ukraine. But as it continues the greater the danger its reach will exceed its grasp. Have you seen the transport ships it has used on the “Syrian express?” It’s nothing short of miraculous that an An-124 or Il-76 hasn’t crashed. But one will.

But there has to be some net assessment here — we ain’t in no great shape ourselves.

Nevertheless, Russia defense industry seems to have hit a wall in many respects. How many times can you modify the same old anti-tank gun from 1984? Each mod is only marginally more effective in combat. But it supports an illusion of progress.

Saying the Russians can’t do everything isn’t sexy but it is a necessary tonic. They can do plenty but there isn’t much focus on their problems and limitations because they themselves don’t speak about them (at least out loud and to us).

Parlous State of VTA

Oleg Falichev wrote recently for Voyenno-promyshlennyy kuryer on the parlous state of Russia’s VTA — Military-Transport Aviation. The one-time Krasnaya zvezda correspondent laid out a less-than-convincing “infomercial” supporting renewed production of the Soviet-era An-124 heavy transport by Ilyushin.

An Endangered Species the An-124

Endangered species?

That said, Falichev made points worthy of attention. Still some of his numbers are irreconcilable. But the thrust of his report is significant and grim for the VTA.

The current condition of the VTA inventory isn’t up to its missions, according to Falichev. Those missions include transferring troops between theaters, delivering large-diameter equipment, medical evacuation, other logistical support, and, most importantly, carrying the VDV to the battlefield.

VTA workhorses — the An-124 and Il-76 — are in dire need of replacement and/or modernization. The issue, Falichev says, is what needs to be done to keep them flying.

The majority of Russian transport aircraft were made in Soviet times or the 1990s, and the service life of most is expiring. Falichev reports that Moscow has only four An-124, 46 Il-76, and one An-22 heavy transports in a combat ready state. He says Russia has 26 An-124, but only four in a serviceable, flyable condition.

Other sources report a nominal (not necessarily operational) inventory of nine An-124, 89 Il-76, and five An-22 aircraft.

In NVO recently, Aleksandr Khramchikhin concluded VTA has about 15 An-124 and An-22 and about 90 Il-76 transports along with some 160 medium transports (mainly An-12 and An-26).

DIA’s recent Russian Military Power pub said virtually nothing about VTA as a power projection resource (probably wise), but it wrote that Russia has “122 heavy transports” which pushes the outer limit of reality.

The USAF has 45 C-5, 222 C-17, and probably 350 C-130 transports in various configurations.

Khramchikhin puts this in context:

“The enormous size of American transport aviation is explained by the global missions standing before the U.S. Armed Forces, especially since all these missions have to be carried out beyond North America. We have no such scope although, as events in Syria show, it fully well may appear sooner or later. But the scale of our own country in conjunction with the configuration of Russian territory (strongly stretched in a latitudinal direction in distinction from the almost square U.S.) and the difficulty of accessing most of it requires a very large VTA. We can have 6-7 thousand km between point A and point B inside our own country and point B can be in such a place where literally ‘it’s only possible to go by plane.’ So 250 transport planes (of which the larger half are medium and light) is little for us since the majority of them (all An-12 and An-22, a signficant part of Il-76 and An-26) have gotten very outdated. In addition, our VTA is very strangely deployed on the country’s territory — in gigantic Siberia and the Far East, which are almost entirely inaccessible regions, there is only the 257th Transport Regiment with 12 aged An-12 and 5 An-26 medium planes located in the very extreme south-east ‘corner’ of this super-region! The largest VDV in the world also require a much larger quantity of more modern transport aircraft.”

But back to Falichev . . . .

Falichev concludes that even optimal production of the Il-76MD-90A (Il-476) won’t replace the existing Il-76 inventory in the new future. There is, he claims, a replacement for the An-124 contained in GPV 2018-2027. Nevertheless, there remains a “real risk of a sharp decline” in the numbers of Russian VTA aircraft. And in combat readiness also. Syria and other contingencies, he continues, demonstrate the is high demand for the capabilities of a transport like the An-124.

News photo purportedly showing offload of S-300P TEL from An-124 in Syria

News photo purportedly showing offload of S-300P TEL from An-124 in Syria

With due respect to Messrs. Falichev and Khramchikhin, Moscow might live without new VTA aircraft. It’s not able to acquire everything to modernize its armed forces. Trade-offs are inevitable. VTA might be one. Russia’s rail network provides good internal lines-of-communication. Russia is more likely to fight regional conflicts along its periphery than far-flung wars. That its military could operate without new VTA is a debatable proposition, but one that should be, and likely is being, debated in Moscow.

Supposedly the PAK TA will be able to transport Russia’s new generation armor — Armata, Kurganets-25, etc. It might be ready for series production in 2027 in an optimistic scenario. In a realistic one, there are lots of obstacles.

Former Deputy Defense Minister and arms tsar, now Deputy PM and arms tsar, Yuriy Borisov has not only rained on renewed An-124 production, but also said R&D for PAK TA wont even begin until 2025. Its PD-35 engines won’t be ready before 2027. He has said modernized An-124s could fly until almost 2040.

So Falichev and others are left largely in the same place — modernizing the existing inventory of transports.

Here are some of his more squirrelly figures. He says the VTA maintains the fitness of the inventory at 56 percent — more than 131 of 200 aircraft are serviceable, 41 percent of Il-76s, 36 percent of An-124s, 17 percent of An-22s. None of these numbers track with the foregoing. Suffice it to say that readiness, serviceability, and OOB figures are notoriously spongy. It’s hard to say who’s counting and what they’re counting.

Falichev writes that Russian transports are simply being overworked. In 2016, the Il-76 force reached its annual flight hours target of about 24,000 in June and went on to get 150 percent of the goal for the year. This tracks with lots of past reports indicating that VTA pilots have no problem getting their flight hours.

VTA isn’t getting nearly enough maintenance money in the state defense order. In 2016, it paid for only 9 percent of the necessary parts and components. Less than that was actually received, according to Falichev. That amount was reduced in 2017 when there were plans to refurbish only nine transports.

The production and repair of D-30KP-2 engines for Il-76s is insufficient. Falichev says the annual requirement is 120 of them. He claims there’s a plan to acquire more than 500 of them by 2024.

Falichev claims Russia’s An-124s get only two percent of the financing needed to service them. Their D-18T engines are a problem since they’re now a foreign product (Motor Sich in Ukraine). And AO UZGA in Yekaterinburg hasn’t mastered their repair. Perhaps because they aren’t getting paid to do it? Obviously an import-substitute is needed here.

So he sums it up:

“As we see, the problems are serious enough that they can’t be solved with a wave of the hand. It’s no wonder in Rus they say: the peasant doesn’t cross himself until it thunders.”

In other words, Moscow may have put off action on VTA until it’s too late.

To remedy VTA’s woes, Falichev calls for GOZ financing sufficient to maintain transport aircraft, their engines, and components at an acceptable level. He advocates funding to repair 12 D-18T, 8 NK-12MA (for An-22), and 112 D-30KP-2 engines. He says the quality of Il-76 maintenance at Novgorod’s AO 123 ARZ needs to improve. His entire “to-do” list is longer.

Falichev concludes:

“These are only the most essential measures. The state needs a long-term, systematic aviation development program, not just for military but also civilian aviation. Without it, Russia will stop calling itself an aviation power and will continue flying in ‘Boeings’ and ‘Airbuses.'”

And this is really the crux. Moscow doesn’t seem to have a priority on fixing VTA, but it won’t give up on it either because that would imply giving up on its larger aviation industry to some degree.

Su-34s Practice Anti-Ship Strikes

Yesterday RIA Novosti ran the headline “Pacific Fleet Fighters Launch Newest Kh-35U Anti-Ship Missiles.” Сiting a Russian MOD press-release, the news agency said they were Su-34 fighter-bombers.

It’s curious because Russia’s neglected Pacific Fleet air component doesn’t have Su-34s. The closest are 26 belonging to the VKS based in Khurba, Khabarovsk territory (277th Bomber Regiment).

The Su-34 has been produced in good numbers now, but it’s still a system from the 1990s . . . a major update of the 1970s-vintage Su-24.

The Russian Navy has only a regiment of MiG-31 interceptors at Yelizovo outside Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy. But it also operates assorted land-based ASW aircraft, transports, and helos.

Capture

Khurba’s a long way from the open ocean

The unknown number of Su-34s apparently fired eight missiles, and all struck derelict vessels imitating enemy ships.

The Kh-35U — or AS-20 / Kayak air-launched variant — has a 260-km range, and has been in Russia’s inventory since the early 2000s. As the MOD reminds, it can be fired from a number of combat aircraft, Tu-142 ASW aircraft, helos, or land-based Bal launchers (SSC-6 / Sennight).

The “U” might be for improved (usovershennyy) or multirole (universalnyy), but it’s still not really the latest thing as RIA Novosti said.

Neither RIA Novosti nor the MOD indicated where the practice strikes occurred, which is interesting.

Add the combat radius of the Su-34 to the missile’s range and the Russians don’t get much protection for ships out of Vladivostok or for the Kuriles.

Capture

Not much reach

Almost any exercise is good for a military, but it’s hard to see the point in this one unless Russian Naval Aviation gets its own Su-34s. Or the VKS bases them closer to the sea.

Just an example of the deconstruction required when the press (Russian or American) hyperventilates about the rising Russian military threat.

Su-57

Su-57

The Russian Aerospace Forces celebrated the 105th anniversary of their founding today.

From VKS CINC General-Colonel Viktor Bondarev, we learned yesterday that the Future Aviation System Frontal Aviation (PAK FA or ПАК ФА) will be officially known as the Su-57.

At MAKS, it was announced that state joint testing of the “first phase” fighter is concluding. Sukhoy is beginning production of 12 fifth generation Su-57 fighters which will reach front-line units in 2019. But OAK President Yuriy Slyusar admitted publicly that the first 12 will have the “first phase” engine.

PAK FA first flew at Komsomolsk-na-Amure on January 29, 2010.

Interfaks-AVN offered the following recap of Su-57 capabilities: a fundamentally new and deeply integrated avionics system providing a high level of automated control and decisionmaking support to the pilot, supercruise without afterburners, low observability from radar, optical, acoustic, and other detection means, supermaneuverability, and relatively short take-off and landing.

Not Necessarily New

Rossiyskaya gazeta reports the first Russian Tu-160M2 airframe has reached final assembly at Tupolev’s Kazan Aircraft Plant (KAZ). But it may not necessarily be new or significantly different from the last Tu-160 / Blackjack produced at KAZ.

RG picked up the story of the first Tu-160M2 from Kazan-based news service Biznes Online which follows plant newspaper Vpered.

The fourth series Tu-160 Valentin Bliznyuk (photo PAO Tupolev)

The fourth Tu-160 Valentin Bliznyuk (photo: PAO Tupolev)

Assembly of bombers at KAZ ended in 1992 with four airframes “in reserve” in various stages of production. Two were completed in 2000 and 2008 with two left unfinished at the factory.

The “Reserve”

For many years, Russian defense industries depended on their Soviet “reserve” [задел]. The “reserve” could be anything from materials to parts to money to technical know-how that helps an enterprise survive lean times. In many instances, they were wartime mobilization supplies. The “reserve” grew out of the Soviet command economy in which a factory would hoard extra resources to use against future production plans. But, over the years, defense industries steadily depleted whatever Soviet-era “reserve” they had. Another classic case of the “reserve” is Sevmash using unfinished Akula-class SSN hull sections to build the first three Borey-class SSBNs.

KAZ management readily admits the bomber bearing factory number 804 is not a full-blooded Tu-160M2. It’s a chance for the factory and its personnel to prove they can renew production of what is surely one of the most complex Russian weapons systems.

The plant has reestablished its vacuum annealing and electron beam welding processes to fabricate Tu-160 airframes. But the Tu-160M2 will depend on many subsystems, components, and parts from a large number of suppliers.

New avionics, navigation, weapons control, and electronic warfare systems aren’t due until series production. The bomber’s principal weapon, a new long-range, high-speed “smart” cruise missile known as Kh-BD, remains in development.

Production of updated NK-32-02 turbofan engines, which has only just begun at PAO Kuznetsov in Samara, could be the most difficult task. In early 2016, Biznes wrote that the company needed to make five engines that year, and 22 per year starting this year. However, it reported that Kuznetsov is “not in very good condition.”

For these reasons, KAZ workers themselves are skeptical about successfully resurrecting bomber production, according to Biznes.

RG indicated Trade and Industry Minister Denis Manturov stated in early 2017 the initial Tu-160M2 would come from the factory’s “reserve” and be ready for flight testing in 2018. Deputy Defense Minister and arms tsar Yuriy Borisov has also said early 2018. According to Interfaks-AVN, Tupolev announced an “experimental” Tu-160M2 would fly in 2019.

Biznes indicated completely new Tu-160M2 bombers — not Soviet legacy airframes — might not appear until 2020, reaching a rate of three per year by 2023. 

Interviewed by Krasnaya zvezda while visiting KAZ in early May, Borisov fully reiterated Russia’s plans for its strategic bombers: all existing Tu-160, Tu-95MS, and Tu-22M3 will be modernized, 50 Tu-160M2 will be produced, and the prospective PAK DA will fly in 2025-2026 and enter production in 2028-2029.

For its part, in its recent “Russia [sic] Military Power” publication, U.S. military intelligence notes:

“. . . all existing Tu-160s will be upgraded to Tu-160M1 or M2. Russia has announced that it will resume production of Tu-160M2 bombers and complete development of a new generation bomber (Russian designation: PAK-DA) within a decade . . . .”

The report allows that “timelines for both programs may slip if financial difficulties arise.”

But such troubles arose two or three years ago and Moscow’s economic woes make ambitious, if not grandiose, strategic bomber programs unaffordable. The burden of upgrading every existing bomber while developing a new one like the B-2 will be incompatible with declining defense budgets.

Yet strategic nuclear forces are an undeniable priority for the Kremlin and bombers figure as something of a hedge against U.S. missile defense systems.

Russian President Vladimir Putin loves the impression bombers make. In 2007, he restarted regular strategic bomber patrols along NATO borders to signal Russian intent to become more assertive abroad.

Well-worn shot of Putin before his 2005 flight in a Tu-160 (photo Kremlin.ru)

Well-worn shot of Putin before his 2005 flight in a Tu-160 (photo: Kremlin.ru)

He has also sent Tu-160 bombers to Venezuela and Nicaragua in a show-the-flag campaign. The Tu-160 flew its first combat mission over Syria in 2015.