Russia’s strategic aviation reach – interview with an expert

26 May, 01:28 AM
In the early 2000s, Russia put the morally and physically obsolete Tu-95 back into service because of the lack of strategic aircraft, military expert Mikhail Zhirokhov asserts (Photo:Photo:REUTERS / Sergei)

In the early 2000s, Russia put the morally and physically obsolete Tu-95 back into service because of the lack of strategic aircraft, military expert Mikhail Zhirokhov asserts (Photo:Photo:REUTERS / Sergei)

Mykhailo Zhirokhov, military expert and aviation history researcher, discusses the current state of Russia's strategic aviation, including the quantity and quality of its bombers and cruise missiles.

After Russia's plan to plunge Ukraine into cold and darkness this winter with mass missile strikes on energy infrastructure failed, the enemy changed tactics. Now, almost every night, the Russian military conducts demonstrative massive takeoffs of strategic bombers, which deliver combined strikes with a small number of cruise missiles of various types. The enemy has also changed the type of targets they strike.

Video of day

NV spoke about this with Mykhailo Zhirokhov, a military expert and researcher of aviation history, as well as about the current state of Russia’s strategic aviation, what stocks of cruise missiles the aggressor still has, and why they choose to launch them from over the Caspian Sea.

NV: What is the current situation of the aggressor’s strategic aviation, and can Russia produce strategic bombers?

Zhirokhov: Let's start with the fact that strategic aviation is one of the components of Russia's nuclear triad, which includes land, sea, and air forces. At the same time, Russia also considers its long-range aviation as an element of its conventional offensive arsenal.

The Russians inherited all their current strategic aviation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the same time, Russia bartered for strategic bombers from former Soviet republics, where the corresponding air regiments were located, in particular in Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. By the way, many of Ukraine’s strategic aircraft were destroyed from 1998-2001 under the disarmament agreement signed with the United States. Another part of Ukraine’s strategic bomber fleet, in particular the Tu-160, Tu-95, and about 600 Kh-55 cruise missiles, were transferred to Moscow to pay off gas debts.

But be that as it may, we are talking about a relatively small number of these aircraft in Russia, because even in Soviet times they were very expensive pieces of equipment. In fact, we are talking around 70 planes. For example, there are only 13 Tu-160s in Russia. Therefore, it was very painful for the Russians when, in 2022, as a result of drone strikes on the Shaikovka airfield in Kaluga Oblast and Engels-2 in Saratov Oblast, several strategic bombers were damaged. This was quite a serious loss for them.

The fact is that for the past 30 years, Russia produced no new strategic aviation aircraft. Yes, Moscow assured the world that it had mastered the production of modernized Tu-160s, but in all this time it was able to make only two aircraft – Tu-160M ​​and Tu-160M2. And before the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the latter had only just made its maiden flight.

In addition, in 2021, the Russians introduced the MiG-31K into their strategic aviation. This is a modification of the Soviet fighter jet which can carry the “hypersonic” Kinzhal missile. However, it should be noted that the serial production of the MiG-31 ended in 1994.

Moreover, in the early 2000s, the Russians were forced to bring back outdated Tu-95 turboprop bombers into service. Yes, it is about the same age as the U.S. B-52 Stratofortress, but the latter underwent constant upgrades, while the Soviet flying hulk has not.

Thus, the Russians are flying planes that will soon exhaust their lifespans. The last most modern Russian aircraft – the MiG-31 – was built in 1994, while the Tu-95 is from the 1950-1960s. The Tu-22 is from the 1980s, and while the Tu-160 is newer, it is also a 1980s-era plane.

At the same time, military science has not stood still, and while electronics have taken a huge step forward, Russian aircraft remain equipped with Soviet systems. Yes, they are still working and capable of launching missiles at Ukraine, but everyone sees that the better Ukrainian air defense becomes, the more missiles are shot down.

It should also be noted that the current Russian strategic aviation is only effective against relatively weak air defenses. Recall that the Russian Federation used these bombers in Syria, where there were no air defense systems at all.

NV: In this case, what is the operational lifespan of Russian strategic bombers?

Zhirokhov: They have a fairly long lifespan. The Soviet Union was serious about the production of weapons, especially if it concerned nuclear weapons. Therefore, they created these planes with solid lifespans. For example, if the MiG-29’s airframe has a lifespan of 40 years, then we can say that strategic aircraft have a lifespan of 50-60 years.

However, it should also be taken into account that after the collapse of the Soviet Union and before the start of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, these aircraft flew very little, and in addition to metal fatigue, their internal components also have lifespans, which depends on their mean time between failures. Thus, they still have the ability to fly. And if I am not mistaken, the Russians believed that they would be able to operate these aircraft without any problems until 2027. But that was before the full-scale war against Ukraine.

Дайджест главных новостей
Бесплатная email-рассылка только лучших материалов от редакторов NV
Рассылка отправляется с понедельника по пятницу

In addition, beyond sorties to strike at Ukraine, these strategic bombers are performing training sorties, flying from airfield to airfield, etc. All of this has costs for their durability and capability.

NV: And how many strategic aviation airfields are there in Russia, and where are they located?

Zhirokhov: We should bear in mind that strategic aviation aircraft are very powerful and large, and are therefore not based on ordinary airfields, but rather on ones with 3.5 km-long runways. There are four or five such airfields in Russia. They are Dyagilevo (Ryazan), Olenya (Kola peninsula), Ukrainka (Amur region), Shaikovka, and Engels-2.

This is very bad for the Russians, because Western countries, in particular the United States, have all their coordinates. Therefore, in the event of some kind of aggression or a big war [with the West], these airfields would immediately be targeted for destruction with all available weapons. In this case, Russia would have nowhere to relocate their strategic aircraft, because civilian and small military airfields are not suitable for them. Even if the Russians hide these aircraft in hangars or somewhere else, they will not be able to use them, because planes would not have a suitable surface to take off from. And for the past 30 years, not a single strategic aviation airfield has been built in the Russian Federation.

NV: Let's talk about the armament of these aircraft. We know that the Russians mainly use Kh-101, Kh-555, and Kh-22 missiles for striking Ukrainian territory. How large are Russia’s reserves of these missiles?

Zhirokhov: The cruise missiles that Russians are using to attack Ukraine, namely the Kh-55, Kh-555, and Kh-22, are all Soviet-era munitions, no longer in production. Currently, they [Russians] have mass production of the Kh-101/Kh-102, Kalibr [cruise missiles], and that’s basically it. Unless they plan to launch mass production of the Kh-50 Orion cruise missile.

As for their stocks of Soviet missiles, they are unfortunately quite large. Just remember that in 1999, Ukraine alone handed over about 600 Kh-55 cruise missiles to the Russians. And as far as I know, even now the Russians are trying to produce these missiles from working components taken out of decommissioned Soviet missiles. But this cannot be called serial production, but rather one-off production.

In addition, for 30 years, the Russians had an annual production volume of several dozen cruise missiles, and this rate stabilized after 2008. And now they are working round-the-clock to build them, and adapting their electronics to use Chinese components. The Russians have problems with the production of Kalibrs, but they have built up their stocks of the Kh-101 consistently, to many times more than before the invasion of Ukraine.

Therefore, considering the already-expended cruise missiles, I would now talk about a total stock of about 1,500 missiles. But it is too early to say that the Russians have reached a critically low limit of their reserves. In addition, there is also an emergency reserve, perhaps 10-20%, which the Russians keep in storage in case of one of those clashes with NATO they keep talking about.

NV: In your opinion, have the Russians now changed their tactics of using strategic aviation to launch strikes against Ukraine?

Zhirokhov: Absolutely. For example, in the first days of the full-scale war, the Russians tried to destroy airfields with strategic air strikes. Although, in truth, it is almost impossible to destroy the airfield with the number of missiles they used. Later, the enemy tried to strike at military-industrial enterprises and energy infrastructure facilities. This is not the typical target profile for strategic bombers, since the Soviets intended them for pinpoint strikes against military targets. And now the Russians have switched to this tactic and are trying to hit command posts, fuel depots, ammunition depots, and personnel deployment sites.

NV: Which of the airfields is the most convenient for Russian strategic bombers to use when carrying out missile strikes on Ukraine?

Zhirokhov: The Engels-2 airfield is most conveniently located, because the so-called ‘approach shoulder’ [to the launch zone] is about an hour or less. But after drone strikes on this airfield in December 2022, the Russians got scared and transferred their strategic bombers to the Olenya air base so that there was no way to reach them.

Now the Russians have to fly four hours from the Olenya air base to reach the Caspian Sea, launch the missiles, and then fly back in the opposite direction. Thus, during these eight-hour flights, crew fatigue and landing-associated risks increase.

NV: By the way, why do Russian strategic aviation planes launch missiles from the Caspian Sea area?

Zhirokhov: You need to understand that, for example, the Kh-22 anti-ship missile is a very old missile that uses a liquid propellant. In addition, it [the fuel] is so highly toxic that during the refueling of the rocket, before using the equipment, they must wear a combined-arms protective kit with a gas mask. At the same time, this rocket fuel is unstable, with most missile failures occurring during launch. That is, to put it simply, the Kh-22’s engine may not start. That is why the Russians make launches either from the Astrakhan region over unpopulated areas, or over the Caspian Sea. They are trying to minimize harm to themselves, because if the rocket does not work during launch, it will fall either on a deserted training ground or into the water and will not explode, because without the engine firing, the warhead will not detonate.

NV: So their strategic bombers can only launch missiles at Ukraine from those areas?

Zhirokhov: Until this point, there had been launches either from the Astrakhan region or from the Caspian Sea region. But last week, perhaps for the first time, it was reported that Tu-22 strategic bombers (capable of launching Kh-22 cruise missiles) had entered the Sea of ​​Azov region. Considering the Russians are now trying to launch missiles from different directions in order to circumvent Ukrainian air defense forces, I do not rule out that the enemy could begin launches from over the Sea of ​​Azov.

And although the minimum range for strategic aviation may be 50-100 km, this would be an inefficient use of such weapons. Of course, a cruise missile can be launched from at least 200 km, but what is the point if it is designed for a range of 2,500 km? Moreover, such a missile costs millions of dollars. And even if they were inherited from the Soviet Union, they are in limited quantities and no longer produced. Would it really be smart to use them that way?

We’re bringing the voice of Ukraine to the world. Support us with a one-time donation, or become a Patron!

Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Google News

Ukraine Today
Fresh daily newsletter covering the top headlines and developments in Ukraine
Daily at 9am EST
Show more news