For the first time in history, two Tupolev Tu-160 Russian supersonic long-range nuclear bombers conducted drills in an area near Alaska on Thursday on the Chukotka Peninsula, which faces Alaska across the Bering Strait.
According to the Moscow Times, the TU-160 is capable of carrying six standard cruise missiles and 12 short-range nuclear missiles and can fly at speeds in excess of 2,000 kph (1,243 mph).
The Russian Ministry of Defense said the flight-tactical exercise, which involved 10 planes in total that included the Tu-160 aircraft, Tu-95MS, and IL-78, was conducted under the command of long-range aviation commander Lieutenant-General Sergei Kobylash.
Flying from their home base in Saratov in southwestern Russia, the supersonic bombers flew 6,437 kilometers (4,000 miles) to Anadyr on the Chukotka Peninsula. The bombers practiced striking targets at Komi range before taking off across the Arctic Ocean. The two aircraft crews refueled in mid-air and then returned to their home base.
This may have been the first time TU-160 bombers have flown close to the Alaskan coast, but it is not the first time other Russian bombers have ventured close to Alaska. In May this year, two US Air Force F-22 stealth fighter jets intercepted two Tupolev Tu-95 Russian nuclear-capable bombers that came within 55 miles of Alaska’s west coast.
The TU-160 modernization program
The Tupolev TU-160 was entered into service in 1987 and was the last strategic bomber designed for the Soviet Union. As of 2016, the Russian Air Force, Long Range Aviation branch had at least 16 of the aircraft in service.
Since the early 2000s, the TU-160 has undergone modernization that included upgrades to the plane’s electronics systems. The first updated TU-160 was delivered in 2014. On 16 November 2017, a newly assembled Tu-160M2 (built of an unfinished airframe of Tu-160) was unveiled during the roll-out ceremony at the Kazan Aviation Plant.
According to Dmitri Rogozin, the serial production of completely new airframes for the modernized Tu-160M2 should begin in 2019 with deliveries to the Russian Air Force in 2023.
Russia shows off what it has
While the Moscow Times is saying that Russia has rebooted production of the plane as it steps up military spending and bomber patrols near foreign borders amid regional tensions, it could be said that Russia is also showing the United States it is not to be fooled with, either.
It is interesting to note that the bomber flights announced Thursday come amid escalating tensions between the US and Russia. And the flights come just after a new Pentagon report released on Thursday that details how Beijing is transforming its ground forces to “fight and win.”
Focusing on China’s air power, the report states that Chinese bombers are developing capabilities to hit targets as far from China as possible.
“Over the last three years, the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) has rapidly expanded its overwater bomber operating areas, gaining experience in critical maritime regions and likely training for strikes against US and allied targets,” the document states, noting how China is pushing its operations out into the Pacific.