Can Russia's strategic bombers carry nuclear weapons? Yes, but will Russia use them?

5 May, 12:36 PM
Tu-160 (Photo:CC)

Tu-160 (Photo:CC)

The Russian military fired about 18 missiles at several Ukrainian oblasts on May 3. According to the Air Force Command, the missiles were fired from Tu-95 or Tu-160 strategic bombers stationed in the Caspian Sea. These missiles could carry a nuclear warhead.

On the evening of May 3, the occupiers' cruise missiles hit the infrastructure of Dnipropetrovsk, Kirovohrad, Lviv, Vinnytsia, Kyiv, and Zakarpattia oblasts

Ukraine’s air defense forces reportedly shot down at least eight Russian cruise missiles, seven drones, and one air missile. 

"The occupiers are sparing their planes and helicopters, so they do not enter the airspace controlled by the Armed Forces," Air Force Command explained. 

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The Tu-95 and Tu-160 strategic bombers were developed in the USSR in the early 1950s and early 1980s, respectively. These jets are some of the most powerful and largest in the world. Among other things, they can carry nuclear weapons. 

In addition to Russia, there are similar bombers in service with the United States and China. Here is what there is to know about them. 

Echoes of the Cold War 

The designs for the first intercontinental bombers date back to World War II. 

But the real race for the development of supersonic strategic bombers began between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. 

The most popular examples were the American Boeing B-52 Stratofortress and the Soviet Tu-95. The main task of these aircraft was to deliver nuclear weapons to the territory of a potential enemy and safely return. 

These planes fly high, fast, and they are quite difficult to spot. However, after the appearance of the first anti-aircraft missile systems, strategic bombers became vulnerable targets, so the requirements for their protection increased. 

In the mid-1980s, the USSR began using an updated version of the Tu-95 — the Tu-160, which is still considered the heaviest and most powerful supersonic aircraft in the history of military aviation. 

The maximum takeoff weight of the Tu-160 is 275 tons, and the maximum mass of its combat payload is 45 tons. The bomber can rise to a height of 16 km, develop a speed of up to 2,230 km/h and fly up to 14,000 km without refueling. 

The American B-52 Stratofortress is inferior to the Tu-160 in all characteristics, except for the maximum flight range (more than 16,000 km). However, the U.S. Air Force has 80 B-52s, while Russia has only 17 active Tu-160s left. 

Russia also has about 60 units of obsolete Tu-95 bombers. And the U.S. Air Force boasts of having the most modern bombers – the Northrop B-2 Spirit, with low-visibility technology such as "stealth" (20 units), and the Rockwell B-1 Lancer (about 60 units). 

In addition, there are Xian H-6 strategic bombers in China's service. These aircraft are a complete analogue of the Soviet Tu-16, which first took off in 1953. As of 2016, the Chinese Air Force and Navy had more than 175 Xian H-6 units, including the strategic bombers and air refueling tankers. 

19 Tu-160 strategic bombers were also in service with the Ukrainian Air Force, but after 1998, 10 aircraft were disposed of, and eight were transferred to Russia to pay for natural gas. One plane remained in the Poltava Museum of Long-Range and Strategic Aviation. 

Doomsday weapons 

In addition to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the Cuban Missile Crisis, strategic bombers have been used in many of the armed conflicts of our era. 

These include the war in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, U.S. operations in the Middle East, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and more. 

The last time the Russian army used a Tu-160 or Tu-95 was probably to strike at infrastructure facilities in Ukraine

The occupiers could use Soviet X-55 strategic cruise missiles and Russian X-101 air-launched strategic cruise missiles as warheads. 

The mass of the warhead of these missiles exceeds 400 kg, the flight speed reaches 970 km/h, and the maximum range is up to 5,500 km. There are also versions of these missiles with nuclear and thermonuclear warheads. 

The Tu-160 can carry up to 12 modern X-101 cruise missiles in the internal compartments, and the Tu-95 up to eight such missiles on the external suspension. 

It is known that in mid-April 2022, three American B-52 Stratofortress aircraft of the 69th Bomb Squadron, their auxiliary equipment, and about 300 personnel completed a rotation of the two-month series of Bomber Task Force Europe missions in Britain, returning to Minot Air Force Base in the U.S. 

Strategic bombers in Europe have demonstrated the Alliance's "unique deterrence capabilities", said General Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of NATO and U.S. Air Force Europe. 

The B-52 is integrated with the British and Norwegian fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II multirole combat aircraft. 

American bombers can be equipped with several types of high-precision weapons, including anti-ship cruise missiles, cruise missiles, tactical missiles, and guided bombs. 

In addition, the B-52 can carry nuclear-powered cruise missiles, as well as thermonuclear and hydrogen bombs. 

Should Ukraine expect a tactical nuclear strike? 

Earlier, NV explained how tactical nuclear weapons differ from strategic ones and how their use could threaten Ukraine. 

Some experts, including sources in the CIA, believe that the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons by the occupiers in Ukraine cannot be ruled out, due to the defeat of the Russian army on the ground. 

However, the Russian government persistently maintains that nuclear weapons can be used only in the event of an imminent threat to Russia. 

"It’s not clear how NATO would respond to the use of a low-yield nuclear weapon in Ukraine — or, for that matter, large-scale use of chemical weapons against Ukrainian targets," said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. 

"The chemical weapons scenario is perhaps more likely, given that norms of non-use of chemical weapons have already been eroded by Syria’s large-scale use of a range of them against its own people in 2014. Use of such weapons by Russia might simply attract intensified sanctions and political condemnation. Tactical nuclear use would be a different matter altogether.” 

According to him, the use of nuclear weapons in the war for the first time since 1945 will make a fundamental shift in global security, breaking the norm of non-use of nuclear weapons. The lack of an effective response from NATO will allow countries to see such weapons as a reliable option for warfare, not just deterrence, Davis argues. 

At present, nuclear warheads are at the very least in service with Russia, the United States, China, France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea. 

Russia, the United States, China, France, and the United Kingdom have signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, under which they have been reducing their nuclear stockpiles since the early 1970s and will have to abandon them altogether in the long run. 

But India and Pakistan are not signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and North Korea withdrew in 2003. Israel does not officially confirm or deny the existence of their nuclear weapons, though they are known to possess a number of them unofficially. 

"There’s a risk now emerging that in the face of military defeat at the conventional level, Russia will use nuclear weapons and plunge the world into a new and uncertain future,” said Davis.

“It’s a future in which low-yield nuclear weapons become usable in conflicts, certainly in terms of implicit and explicit coercive threats against military intervention — as China might do in a Taiwan crisis.” 

NATO forces could strike at Russia's nuclear weapons delivery systems. But any direct military intervention could lead to a wider war between NATO and Russia, which will lead to nearly inevitable nuclear escalation. 

How this race will end and whether anyone will dare to be the first to release a “nuclear genie” remains to be seen in the near future.

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