The Russian Air Force is holding large-scale exercises in the Arctic. As part of the maneuvers, various types of aircraft – from long-range bombers to fighter jets – will be tested. The exercises shall demonstrate the possibilities of using long-range aviation in local non-nuclear conflicts, including in the area beyond the Arctic Circle.
The choice of the Arctic as the site for exercises is not by accident. Interest towards this region continues to grow; in 2012 all arctic countries have already held, or are holding large scale war games here.
There are not many alternatives to the Arctic for Russian long-range aviation. This region is the main “classroom” for the strategic missile carriers: large sparsely populated areas are perfect for training. However, the aims of today’s exercises are somewhat different. Besides traditional long-range launches of cruise missiles, strategic bombers are also testing interaction with fighting aviation – SU-27s and MIG 31s – as well as the use of tactical ammunition. Not only fighters and bombers are taking part in the maneuvers, but also A-50 radar aircraft and Il-78 air tankers performing aerial refueling.
In the Arctic the so-called second specialty of Russian long-range aviation is also quite important – maritime strike training of TU-22M crews. Equipped with existing and potential anti-ship cruise missiles, the TU-22M can be a serious trump card in naval warfare – especially considering their planned modernization.
The Arctic is not just the main training ground for long-range aviation. It is also considered to be a potential region for deploying the army in case of hypothetical local conflicts for the resources of the Arctic Ocean, or for establishing control over the Northern Sea Route, or even in case of nuclear war. The current political situation does not mean that such conflicts might arise in the near future, but in the field of military planning these exercises are based on the principle of “considering possibilities”. As long as Western countries or blocs maintain and develop their military potential in the Arctic, Russian armed forces will be preparing to use all available military means in the region, particularly since the enemy is not just dispersed gangs of rebels but leading countries of the world.
The US Air Force has been widely reputed to use strategic aviation for accomplishing tactical tasks including troop support, but in Russia so far this practice has not been adopted.
Active use of Tu-16 and TU-22M in Afghanistan could have heralded the beginning of such practice, but the following step – design and most importantly introduction of guided aircraft bombs and short-range non-nuclear missiles for strategic aircraft – was not made. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union impeded progress in this area.
As a result, curent Russian long-range aviation has practically no ammunition which could be used in non-nuclear conflicts, except for non-guided aircraft bombs of various calibers. But in case of “real warfare”, strategic cruise missiles and anti-ship missiles with nuclear warheads will be the main payload of the heavy bombers. The long-range aviation numbering over 200 TU-22M, TU-95MC and TU-160 with a high level of combat readiness represents a major part of the Russian Air Force in terms of aircraft numbers and an even more significant part in terms of lifting combat load. Under such circumstances, to use such machines only in nuclear war would be excessive.
In order to correct the situation, not only shall combat aircraft be modernized, but also new, high precision ammo shall be developed. As expected, the first in the class was a next generation long-range cruise missile, though the first to be deployed was the conventionally-armed variant of the missile known as Kh-101.
0Next on the agenda is developing guided ammunition of shorter range and adapting existing high-precision ammo for use by long-range aviation aircraft. In the long run this task will merge with the task of developing ammunition for the next generation long-range bomber, which shall become a universal combat platform for various types of warfare.