Out of Hibernation

Feb. 1, 2012

In the wee hours of Aug. 17, 2007, 14 of Russia’s strategic bombers and a number of support aircraft lumbered into the sky from bases across that country. The synchronized launches were the start of long-range patrols well beyond Russia’s borders.

The otherwise uneventful missions were noteworthy because they marked the resumption of regular strategic training flights, which Russia had mounted only sporadically in the post-Cold War era.

A Russian Tu-95MS Bear bomber takes on fuel from an Il-78M Midas tanker. The iconic turboprop aircraft dominates Russia’s strategic bomber force. (Photo by Yevgeniy Kazennov)

“We have decided to restore flights by Russian strategic aviation on a permanent basis,” Russia’s then-President Vladimir Putin announced, adding that the mission marked the beginning of conducting such patrols “on a regular basis.” In a remark to reporters that was undoubtedly meant for US consumption, he said, “We hope our partners will treat this with understanding.”

Facing demographic and economic challenges, Russia is slowly rebuilding and refurbishing its strategic forces—occasionally using them to assert its interests.

Russia’s conventional power has proved less than decisive in operations ranging from the bloody and costly Chechnya conflicts of the 1990s to the Georgian conflict of 2008. After the Georgia campaign, some retired Russian military officials openly criticized the operation, saying troubles with command and control and lack of appropriate equipment compounded other persistent problems to deny Russia clear success.

“If they were honest, they would prefer to have conventional military capability—but they don’t,” noted Russian military analyst Charles L. Thornton. As recent exercises have demonstrated repeatedly, Russia’s military clout depends on its strategic forces—and this perception within Russia is driving a renewal of the country’s strategic arms.

Much like the US, Russia plans to revamp its strategic weapons in the wake of the April 2010 signing of the New START agreement. New START limits each country to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 800 delivery systems, including both deployed and nondeployed. According to estimates by the Congressional Research Service, after New START reductions, Russia will field about 400 deployed delivery vehicles and 1,335 deployed warheads (counting each bomber as one warhead).

The new nuclear force structure will be more modern, though. New systems being deployed include the SS-27 intercontinental ballistic missile multiple warhead variant, the RS-24, which will replace three older missile systems. Russia is also moving ahead on testing and development of the Bulava SS-N-32 sea launched ballistic missile for its submarine fleet and the new Borey-class SSBN, to replace two older systems: the SS-N-18 and Delta III.

Russia’s strategic bomber force, meanwhile, continues to be dominated by the iconic turboprop Tu-95 Bear—a mainstay of these now-regular patrols in both the European and Pacific theaters.

Since the August 2007 announcement, Russian bombers have flown long-range sorties far from the peripheries of both its European and Pacific territory—from Scandinavia and the North Atlantic to the Arctic and even the waters near Guam.

Russia and China both are expanding the amount of area they cover in surveillance and exercise tracks outside their national airspace, but that’s not particularly alarming to Pacific Air Forces chief Gen. Gary L. North.

“That’s why they call it international airspace,” he quipped to reporters at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference this past September.

“The Russians are out quite a bit, extending their long range capabilities,” he said. “It gives them an opportunity to do long-range training. Clearly, their maintenance is doing much better, their training is doing much better, so they are out there quite a bit,” North observed.

Reinvigorating the Triad

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visits the nuclear-powered submarine Alexander Nevsky. Russia has seabed and territory claims in the Arctic and has increased its submarine patrols in the icy waters. (ITAR/Tass photo by Artyom Korotayev)

The Russian bomber fleet has increased its participation in both Russian and multilateral exercises in the last few years as well, sometimes pairing the Bear with its more modern, swing-wing jet aircraft counterpart, the Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack.

Despite their age, the bombers still pack a credible deterrent capability. In October 2008, the exercise Stability-2008 saw Bears firing live, air launched cruise missiles for the first time since 1984. The Kh-55 cruise missile, called the AS-15 Kent by NATO, is key to the bomber’s longevity and place in Russia’s strategic forces, just as the US B-52 fleet is dependent on standoff cruise missiles for nuclear operations.

With a range of about 2,000 miles, the Kent will keep the Bear fleet strategically relevant for years. Each Tu-95 can fly patterns from standoff distances and hold prospective targets at risk with at least six cruise missiles.

One indisputable purpose of Russia’s strategic exercises and nuclear revitalization is domestic political gain. The moves increase Russian perceptions of national strength.

Russia is carefully trying to rebuild the prestige many officials in government and the military believe the nation has lost since the end of the Cold War.

“A lot of the analyses on Russian activities [assume] Russia is a single entity,” said Thornton, the Washington, D.C., area director of an intelligence consulting firm, Operational Surveyors Inc., and a fellow at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland. “There are a lot of different actors inside that country; they all have different perspectives. There are both external national security reasons [for their actions] and internal domestic political reasons for it.”

Thornton, who first worked with the Russians in the 1990s under the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, has since built extensive contacts among military officials there. The renewal of the flying program, he said, is part of Russia’s attempt to reinvigorate its strategic triad.

The Strategic Rocket Forces—the branch of the Russian military responsible for the country’s ICBMs—has always been the prime emphasis of the country’s strategic planning and doctrine, with submarines second in the pecking order.

The resumption of the bomber patrols dovetails with Russia’s planned strategic modernization. For many years, there were no regular bomber training flights, and now the military feels the bomber fleet must be brought back up to standards.

“The bomber link has always been the weakest,” Thornton asserted.

Yuri Dolgorukiy during sea trials. The submarine will be capable of launching Russia’s Bulava ballistic missile, still in development. (Photo by Alexey Victorovich Schekinov)

The Russian bombers will receive substantial modernization funds, if Russian defense plans are any indication. Russia has 77 Blackjack and Bear strategic bombers combined and plans upgrades to the targeting and navigation systems of both aircraft at a rate of two or three per year, concluding in 2015.

By the end of the New START process, Russia’s bomber force will consist of 13 upgraded Blackjacks and 63 upgraded Bears; one Blackjack, though more modern than the Bear, will be retired before then.

Reportedly, Russia plans to replace all of its strategic bombers with a new stealth aircraft in the 2025 to 2030 timeframe—roughly the same window in which the US Air Force wants to field its next long-range strategic bomber.

The Tupolev Design Bureau began development of the new bomber via a contract with the Defense Ministry in 2009, and the airplane would likely be deployed after New START expires.

In 2010, Putin, who had since become Prime Minister, said Russia must “think and get down to work on a next generation, long-range aviation complex—our new strategic missile carrier” and that top Russian aerospace industrial priorities should be to design engines, new materials, and electronics for such a project.

No Strategic Purpose

Along with the intensified bomber flights, Russia is increasing its submarine patrols in the Arctic, where the country has asserted seabed and boundary territorial claims. This has been prompted by warming of the Arctic Ocean, resulting in reduced pack ice and greater access to oil and natural gas exploration and commercial navigation. Routes over the Arctic are a frequent path for Russian bombers on their long-range aviation patrols and represent the most direct route to the North Atlantic, Thornton noted.

Bomber flights have grown in length and range, even penetrating Western Europe’s sovereign airspace.

In August, two Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16s intercepted a pair of Russian Bear bombers flying just outside of Dutch airspace without identifying themselves; on the same mission, they had first been intercepted by Danish fighters. British fighters took over escort once the Bears left Dutch airspace.

The implications of these Russian activities and investments are being somewhat downplayed in Europe, especially among NATO allies. Flights into European territory are noticed, but frankly have little to no impact, said US Permanent Representative to NATO Ivo H. Daalder in December.

“If there is a desire by Russia to try to do this [in order] to intimidate people, it’s not working. … In fact, [it] gives air defense capabilities good training to get up in the skies and fly,” he said.

“It’s not seen as a change in the Russian direction,” Daalder said of the NATO allies’ opinion of the operations. “It has no strategic [purpose behind it.] … They are trying to modernize their strategic capability; we have good insight into it through the START agreement,” Daalder said. NATO understands what’s happening, and most members don’t feel the need to take issue with the activities so far.

A Tu-160 Blackjack bomber taxis at Engels Air Base in Russia. The modern swing-wing bomber is sometimes paired with the Bear during Russian and multilateral training exercises. (Photo by Yevgeniy Kazennov)

Still, Russia has demonstrated its willingness to use these assets amid territorial and diplomatic disputes.

In early September, two Bear bombers flew around the Japanese mainland on a long-range patrol, and while they did not enter Japanese airspace, the flight drew a harsh response from the Japanese Foreign Ministry, which called on Russia to refrain from “provocative” military action. Some Japanese viewed the exercise as an attempt to pressure the new Japanese government.

The flight was provocative in the context of a long simmering dispute. Russia has since World War II held the two southernmost islands in the Kuril Island chain that stretches between Hokkaido and the Kamchatka peninsula, but those islands are also claimed by Japan. The dispute flared in 2010 when President Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian President to visit the archipelago, followed by other senior officials promising to expand the Russian military presence there.

The flight aroused “suspicion among the Japanese people about its intentions,” Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said in a press conference following the patrol. Russian officials stressed Tokyo had been warned in advance of the flights and said they are standard practice of the armed forces of any state.

With such a large geographic area to secure, Russia has a range of disputes and concerns that have remained fairly consistent since the end of the Cold War, from US and NATO missile defense systems in Europe to surveillance of their submarine deployments, expansion of NATO in Eastern Europe, and US support for Georgia, Thornton noted.

Disagreements over the missile shield have become increasingly contentious, however. In November, Medvedev announced Russia would put early warning radar stations on alert and deploy strategic missiles to counter the US missile defense system in Europe if Russia’s concerns about the system aren’t addressed. Talks continued through December.

At the same time, there are signs of cooperation. Russia has entered into organizations such as the G8, which gives it much-desired prestige and international credibility. The G8, which Russia joined in 1997, also contains Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the US—a group of eight industrialized, democratic economies.

A Tu-22M3 Backfire drops its weapons load over a training range in Russia. The supersonic long-range bomber has been in service since 1983. (Photo by Yevgeniy Kazennov)

Militarily, Russia has played a role in US efforts in Afghanistan by opening the Northern Distribution Network for supply purposes, and it cooperates with multilateral efforts such as anti-piracy actions in the Gulf of Aden. The cruiser Admiral Panteleev, on rotation with other Russian vessels, patrols the gulf, as part of an international coalition to escort merchant shipping.

“My belief is that we can and will find many zones of practical cooperation with Russia,” said Adm. James G. Stavridis, NATO’s supreme allied commander Europe and head of US European Command. NATO and the US share many common security challenges and should develop “practical cooperation” in areas such as counter-piracy, arms control, Arctic policy, military training, and other areas, he said.

Maintaining Vigilance

Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., then-US Northern Command and NORAD commander, told Congress last March his forces monitor Russian long-range aviation flights and routinely fly intercepts with Canadian and US fighters.

“Despite recent improvements in US-Russian relations that reflect a dramatically reduced likelihood of conflict, we maintain our vigilance regarding the high-end threat,” he said in written testimony to the House Armed Services Committee.

Still, greater emphasis is put on terrorist use of civil aircraft, he noted, and cooperation with Russian forces has improved on that front.

In August 2010, NORAD and Russia worked together for the first time in a three-day, live-fly exercise designed to ensure clear communications during a crisis. Dubbed Vigilant Eagle, the exercise simulated an international air terrorism scenario over the Pacific, requiring both Russia and NORAD to launch fighters to investigate a hijacked airliner and coordinate monitoring and hand-off. Vigilant Eagle was an “overwhelming success” and helped create an environment for further cooperative efforts, Winnefeld said.

US Pacific Command also works with the Russian military, particularly in the Eastern Military District, which oversees air and naval forces in the eastern portion of Russia. With partners in US European Command, PACOM maintains discussions with the Russian Colonels Working Group. The group met with Russian officials in Moscow in November to go over an annual plan, arranging certain bilateral and multilateral events and exercises and visits with the United States.

USAF Raptors fly just off the wing of a Tu-95MS Bear. Photos of this November 2007 intercept near Alaska usually show it from the F-22’s perspective. This is what it looked like to the Russians. (Photo via Yevgeniy Kazennov)

The commander of Russia’s Eastern Military District, Adm. Konstantin Sidenko, visited PACOM headquarters in October to participate in the 14th annual Chiefs of Defense Conference, hosted by PACOM’s Adm. Robert F. Willard. The conference brought together senior military leaders from 26 Asia-Pacific countries to discuss mutual security challenges, improve relationships, and build on cooperative efforts.

Plans and statements aside, Thornton said when it comes to the Russian military, it is important to watch how closely actions match up with words.

What Russia says, what the parliament budgets for, and what actually happens can be “very different,” he observed. Russia has built lofty policy documents in the past that included plans for missile regiments, new bombers, and other assets. “Then, if you go back a year later, and look at what they did,” the plans often evaporated.

Russia is a difficult country to understand strategically, he added, but if you consider Russia as a business, then its actions begin to make more sense.

“Russian wealth and power is largely derived from its natural resources, and so it requires some minimal military capability to protect its national borders and national security,” Thornton said. Strategic nuclear forces—bombers, missiles, and submarines—give it that capability and also impart continued international prestige.

Judging from the country’s recent emphasis on these forces, it seems the decision-makers in Moscow would agree.