March 25, 2020
by Mark B. Schneider
Putin’s Russia has been modernizing its strategic nuclear bomber strike capability for two decades. Initially, this involved upgrading the Soviet legacy Tu-95 and Tu-160 bombers plus a few newly produced Tu-160s with more advanced nuclear missiles. Not surprisingly, strategic nuclear upgrades were given first priority. Significantly, the Russians gave either nuclear only or dual capability (nuclear and conventional) with improved accuracy to all of its new long-range cruise missiles and, more recently, moved toward dual-capable hypersonic missiles. These include the dual-capable Kh-555 cruise missile (an adaptation of the Cold War Kh-555), the new stealthy nuclear armed 5,000-km range Kh-102, and the new more accurate stealthy dual-capable 4,500-km range Kh-101, according to President Putin, the Russian Defense Ministry and Russian state media. The officially announced nuclear capability of the Kh-101 long-range cruise missile is virtually ignored in the West, but this development is very important because it gives the Russians the ability to potentially deliver precision or near precision low-yield nuclear strikes. In 2018, Russia announced that it conducted a salvo launch of 12 Kh-101 from a Tu-160 bomber. Today, Russia is reportedly developing the Kh-BD, reportedly a longer-range version of the Kh-101 and Kh-102 cruise missiles for its bombers.
These new missiles substantially increase the strike radius of Russian bombers. Moreover, Russia also retained the Soviet Cold War nuclear systems – the nuclear Kh-55/AS-15 long-range air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), the reportedly now dual-capable (originally nuclear only) short-range Kh-15 (AS-16) and gravity bombs. According to President Putin, “All of them [Tu-95 and Tu-160] must be able to carry both advanced cruise missiles and other powerful weapons.”
In 2015, Russia announced a program to develop and deploy at least 50 much improved Tu-160M2 bombers (new engines with10% better performance or a 1,000-km range increase, new avionics, new electronic warfare equipment, new weapons, an active phased array radar, and a modestly reduced radar cross section). Fabrication of the Tu-160M2 bombers reportedly began in 2018; it is now being tested. Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov has said that the combat effectiveness of the Tu-160M2 will be two and a half times greater than that of its predecessor. Reportedly, two to three Tu-160M2s will be produced each year. Delivery to the troops reportedly will begin in 2021.
It appears that hypersonic missiles will become almost the norm for Russian aircraft, the size of a long-range strike fighter or larger. In February 2020, Russian state media reported that the Tu-160 was being modified to carry the hypersonic Kinzhal (Kh-47M2) dual-capable aeroballistic missiles. The implication of this development is that Russia’s airborne hypersonic missile strike capability will be extended to intercontinental range, probably, eventually, with multiple missile types.
In February 2020, state-run Sputnik News reported, “All the existing [Tu-160] aircraft are set to be upgraded to the advanced ‘M’ and ‘M2’ versions, while a number of Tu-160M2 planes are expected to be produced from scratch.”
Today, the subsonic Tu-95 Bear H bomber is essentially a strategic cruise missile carrier. The Tu-95 carries the same long-range dual-capable cruise missiles as the Tu-160. The two versions of the legacy Tu-95 could carry either six or 16 Kh-55 long-range nuclear cruise missiles. By hook or by crook, Russia managed to obtain 40 former Soviet Tu-95MS16 and 28 Tu-95MS6 bombers. These are being extensively modernized, a process that is still continuing. Russian Tu-95MS bombers are being fitted with improved engines. According to the Commander of Russia’s Long-Range Aviation Lieutenant General Sergei Kobylash, “The complex will be equipped with such advanced systems as: inertial, astroinertial systems, satellite navigation systems, near-navigation radio-technical systems, air signal systems, onboard defence complex, electronic warfare complex.” The Russian Defense Ministry has said that six modernized Tu-95MS will join the strategic bomber fleet in 2020. In February 2020, state-run Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported that the “latest MSM modification [of the Tu-95]…is recognizable by the pylons under the wings for suspending eight Kh-101s. Six more Kh-55s are stored in a fuselage launcher. Thus, the Tu-95MChS reportedly can carry 14 cruise missiles, two more than the Tu-160.” The underwing launchers can also carry the Kh-102. Its maximum load of Kh-555 is also reported to be 14 missiles.
Russia is reportedly developing the KH-MT, a “ram-jet powered hypersonic design apparently intended for internal carriage [on the Tu-95MSM bomber].” This makes more sense than arming them with the Kinzhal hypersonic aeroballistic missile because the subsonic speed of the Tu-95 would reduce the range of the Kinzhal. The range of the Kinzhal depends upon the speed at which it is launched. This is not true for powered hypersonic missiles.
Since 2007, Russia has used both the Tu-160 and the Tu-95 for purposes of nuclear intimidation by routinely flying these aircraft into U.S., NATO and Japanese air defense identification zones. They have been used to launch cruise missile strikes against targets in Syria with the conventional version of Russia’s long-range nuclear capable missiles (Kh-101 and Kh-555). This includes the ridiculous Tu-160 flights all the way around NATO to deliver missiles that could have been launched from Russian territory soon after bomber takeoff. A senior Russian official once threatened to fly a Tu-160 over the territory of a NATO nation. In April 2015, the U.K. press reported that two Russian Tu-95 bombers flying over the English Channel were carrying at least one “nuclear warhead-carrying missile, designed to seek and destroy a Vanguard [strategic ballistic missile] submarine.” According to Russia’s state media, starting in a 2003 Indian Ocean exercise, Russia began to use its heavy bombers in a nuclear strike anti-ship role in conjunction with Russian Naval forces. The publicity given to the nuclear elements of these and other Russian exercises is intended to intimidate. If President Putin gets mad, his default mode is always nuclear threats.
Russia has also upgraded the legacy supersonic Tu-22M3 Backfire bomber with improved dual-capable long-range missiles (reportedly the Kh-555, the Kh-101) and the nuclear capable near hypersonic 1,000-km range Kh-32, the upgraded Kh-32M and the planned upgrading of 30 Tu-22M3M bombers with new engines, new avionics and new weapons. The Backfire reportedly has the capability to carry eight Kh-101. Testing of the improved Backfire has been announced. The legacy Soviet nuclear capable Kh-22 is reportedly still operational on the Backfire. The Backfire bomber will also reportedly carry up to four Kinzhal hypersonic missiles. The Backfire bomber is now not classified as a heavy bomber subject to limitations under the New START Treaty. Yet, the upgrades being reported in Russian state media would make it a heavy bomber under the New START Treaty. Failure to declare it as a heavy bomber would be a violation of the New START Treaty. This will be discussed below.
In an unclassified 2017 report, the Defense Intelligence Agency stated that, “The LRA [Long Range Aviation] has an inventory of 16 Tu-160, 60 Tu-95MS, and more than 50 Tu-22M3 bombers.”
In 2009, Russia announced the development of the subsonic stealth cruise missile carrying Pak-DA bomber. It is rumored to be powered by “a radically new type of engine.” In 2019, Deputy Defense Minister Aleksey Krivoruchko said that the bomber would be operational in 2027. In January 2020, Izvestia reported that three protypes are under contract and that flight testing of the bomber will begin in 2023 and “mass production” of the bomber will begin in 2027. By “mass production,” the Russians usually mean something like we would call low rate production. Reportedly, the Pak-DA can carry “30 tonnes of nuclear weaponry.” The Pak-DA is likely to carry the same cruise missiles as the other Russian bombers, but the whole purpose of giving the aircraft stealth capability is to penetrate air defenses and launch direct attacks or launch limited range missile attacks. There is no need for stealth if the aircraft will only carry 4,500-5,000-km or more range cruise missiles. Thus, it is reasonable to expect that Pak-DA will also carry gravity bombs, short-range and hypersonic missiles. Because it is sub-sonic, it is not a good candidate for the Kinzhal. It is more likely to carry a powered hypersonic missile. Russian state media have reported it will carry hypersonic missiles.
The Russians claim that the Pak-DA will be cheaper than the Tu-160, but this is very unlikely since stealth aircraft have to be built with extreme attention to tolerances. In addition to its bomber role, TASS says it will also function as a “command center or reconnaissance plane.”
In December 2002, former Atomic Energy Minister and then-Director of the Sarov nuclear weapons laboratory, declared, “The scientists are developing a nuclear ‘scalpel’ capable of ‘surgically removing’ and destroying very localized targets. The low-yield warhead will be surrounded with a superhardened casing, which makes it possible to penetrate 30–40 meters into rock and destroy a buried target—for example, a troop command and control point or a nuclear munitions storage facility.” This weapon would have great utility for Russia’s nuclear escalation strategy, which is initially based upon low-yield nuclear strikes. Reliable air delivery of this weapon would require a stealth aircraft. The Pak-DA is the only known manned Russian aircraft today that could have a true stealth capability. Thus, such a weapon is clearly a candidate for the Pak-DA.
In 2012, then-Commander of the Russian Air Force Colonel General Alexander Zelin stated that the Su-34 long-range supersonic strike fighter would be given “…long range missiles…Such work is underway and I think that it is the platform that can solve the problem of increasing nuclear deterrence forces within the Air Force strategic aviation,” The Su-34 is the strike fighter version of the Flanker, similar although much more modern than the U.S. F-15E prior to the recent decision to upgrade it. It is not a stealth aircraft. Its performance in defense penetration is likely similar to large Western 4.5 generation strike fighters, although it is likely to have inferior electronics. An obvious candidate for giving the Su-34 strategic capability would be the Kh-101. Its maximum ferry range is reported to be 4,500-km and its strike radius 1,100-km. Carrying a heavy long-range cruise missile it would have a range that would likely be between these two numbers since it could fly its entire mission at medium or high altitude. With extensive refueling and Russia’s long-range nuclear capable cruise missiles, a strategic capability would be possible. However, the optimum use for this aircraft would probably be theater attack.
In December 2016, Sputnik News revealed that the Russian Su-34 was being equipped with “a new generation of so-called aeroballistic missiles.” This is clearly the Kinzhal hypersonic missile, which will give it a very impressive strike radius in peripheral areas.
The existing Su-34 program is for about 200 aircraft.
The Impact of New START on the Expansion of Russia’s Bomber Delivered Nuclear Weapons
The permissiveness of the New START Treaty regarding bomber weapons is almost the equivalent of having no arms control limitations at all. Under the New START Treaty, a full load of nuclear weapons carried by a heavy bomber “is counted as one warhead toward this limit [deployed warheads]”, according to the U.S. Department of State. In 2010, The New York Times reported that Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American scientists characterized the New START treaty bomber weapons counting rule as “totally nuts Writing during New START ratification, Russian Major General (ret.) Vladimir Dvorkin pointed out, “Firstly, it [New START] does not provide a real reduction of strategic offensive armaments by the number of nuclear warheads as compared with the Moscow Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty [SORT] of 2002 due to the new rules in counting nuclear armaments of heavy bombers: one heavy bomber—one warhead.” He calculated that the 77 then-existing Russian heavy bombers could carry over 850 actual nuclear warheads. Now, almost certainly, because of the New START Treaty counting rule, an additional 50 Tu-160M2 bombers will be added. As noted above, in 2018, a Tu-160 bomber actually launched 12 nuclear capable cruise missiles in an exercise. In March 2020, Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda wrote that the Tu-95 and Tu-160 “have approximately 580 bomber weapons” but with no sourcing. Even if this number is accepted as accurate, there is no indication that the U.S. plans a remotely similar number of uncounted bomber weapons.
Under the original START Treaty, air-launched ballistic missiles with ranges over 600-km were prohibited. In 2019, then-Under Secretary of State Andrea Thompson stated that the Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missile was not limited by the New START Treaty. This means that it can be legally carried by anything that flies and does not count against New START limitations in any way. It would almost double the strike radius of the existing version of the Backfire as well as vastly improving its capability against advanced air defenses.
The New START Treaty, Protocol, Part 1, definition 23 defines the term heavy bomber. It states:
The term “heavy bomber” means a bomber of a type, any one of which satisfies either of the following criteria:
(a) Its range is greater than 8000 kilometers; or
(b) It is equipped for long-range [600-km] nuclear ALCMs.
TASS reports that the range of the current version of the Backfire bomber (Tu-22M3) is 7,000-km. TASS also says the new NK-32-02 engines to be put on the upgraded Backfire (Tu-22M3M) are the same engine to be used in the new Tu-160M2 heavy bomber, which Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yury Borisov said will increase its range about 1,000-km (about 600 miles). An equal or greater range improvement should be expected for the Backfire. The use of the Backfire in two recent Russian strategic nuclear exercises, announced by the Russian Ministry of Defense, may reflect its reported new long-range nuclear cruise missile capability. Thus, if the TASS range report is accurate, it is possible that the engine upgrade alone could push the Backfire above the heavy bomber threshold as defined in the New START Treaty, although the Russians won’t declare it to be one because that would make it accountable under the New START Treaty limits. If the Russian state media reports that the Backfire can now deliver the new nuclear capable Kh-32 (according to Russia state media and the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review report) and if reports the nuclear capable Kh-101 and Kh-555 (according to Putin, the Russian Defense Ministry and Russian state media) are true, the Backfire has already been turned into an undeclared heavy bomber under the New START heavy bomber definition and Russia is in violation of the New START Treaty.
If the Russian state media reports about the range and nuclear capability of the Kh-32, the Kh-101 and Kh-555 cruise missiles are true, the Russian Backfire force or at least the 50 Tu-22M3 models are currently undeclared heavy bombers and, hence, constitute a major violation (i.e., material breach) of the New START Treaty. This issue is being almost completely ignored in the West. This is particularly relevant today because of the debate on the extension of the New START Treaty. Similarly, giving the Su-34 a long-range nuclear cruise missile capability without declaring it to be a heavy bomber would be a clear violation of the New START Treaty.
Absent an economic collapse in Russia, the Russian strategic nuclear bomber force will continue to expand in terms of the number of platforms, the number of nuclear weapons they carry and their strike range. The New START Treaty has virtually no effect on these developments. The problem will be made worse by the Backfire bomber and the Su-34 strike fighter reportedly being given prohibited nuclear long-range cruise missile capability. Russian strategic bombers will also be given nuclear capable hypersonic missiles.
During the next decade, best case, the U.S. nuclear bomber strike capability, will continue to decline. In the words of General (ret.) John M. Loh, former commander of Air Force Combat Command:
In the Air Force’s fiscal 2021 budget request, one-third of the B-1 fleet is set for retirement, B-2 survivability modernization is canceled, and the new B-21 is at least a decade away from contributing significantly to the bomber force. The venerable B-52 requires new engines and other upgrades to be effective. The number of bombers is at their lowest ever, but demand for bombers increases every year, particularly in the vast and most-stressed region of the Indo-Pacific….At the end of the Cold War in 1989 and just prior to the Gulf War in 1990, America had over 400 bombers. After these proposed cuts, there will be only 140…. Among the 140 bombers that remain, only the 20 stealthy B-2s have the ability to penetrate modern air defenses to strike critical targets — a priority of the National Defense Strategy. Yet the FY21 budget request cancels the B-2’s Defensive Management System Modernization program and puts our only operational stealth bomber on a path to early retirement.
These are not the only problems we face in maintaining nuclear bomber capability. In June 2017, General John Hyten, then-Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, stated that replacing the existing AGM-86B nuclear ALCM is particularly needed because it is so old. He also observed, “It’s a miracle that it can even fly,” its reliability was “already unacceptable” and would get worse every year. The only enhancement in U.S. nuclear capabilities before the late 2020s will be the B-61 Mod 12 bomb. Yet, just after his retirement, General Herbert J. (Hawk) Carlisle stated that to penetrate the last few miles through Russian air defense our bombs had to have maneuverability and stealth. The B-61 and the older B-83 do not have these capabilities since even the B-61 Mod 12 is only a nuclear JDAM and the B-83 is a gravity bomb. Under current plans, the U.S. will never get a nuclear capable hypersonic missile.
U.S. air-delivered strategic nuclear weapons capability will continue to erode until the B-21 becomes available in significant numbers — if it ever does — in view of the left-wing drift in American politics which could kill it. If we get the B-21, it will most likely be substantially better than the Russian Pak-DA, but it will face vastly more extensive and advanced strategic air defenses in Russia and China.