Russian Long Range Aviation and Conventional Strategic Strike

Dr James Bosbotinis
Posted: 03/05/2015

Russia’s Long Range Aviation Command (LRA) has assumed an increasingly prominent role in recent years, commencing with the resumption of regular bomber patrols in August 2007, and particularly through the course of 2014/2015, as Russia’s resurgence has adopted a distinctly more muscular tone amid deteriorating relations with the West. The LRA is increasing both its tempo and scope of operations: the latter highlighted by the declared intent to expand patrols to new regions, including the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico; in addition, Russian long-range bombers have been observed conducting armed patrols. Most significantly, the LRA is intended to form a core component of a wider conventional strategic deterrent capability. Russia’s interest in developing conventional long-range strike systems is a facet of its on-going military reform efforts whereby it is seeking to enhance the effectiveness of the Russian Armed Forces, especially in terms of its ability to conduct extensive, precise strikes against an adversary’s critical strategic economic and military objectives.

In order to achieve this, Russia is investing in developing a significant, predominantly cruise missile-based long-range strike capability principally utilising ships and submarines of the Russian Navy and the LRA’s Tupolev Tu-95MS Bear, Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers. Moreover, Russia is also developing a new strategic bomber, the ‘Prospective Aviation Complex for Long Range Aviation’ or PAK DA. The PAK DA, a development contract that has been awarded to the Tupolev company, is envisioned to be a subsonic, flying-wing low-observable bomber capable of conducting conventional and nuclear operations; it is due to enter service in 2025, initially supplementing and eventually replacing the Bear and Blackjack. Whether Russian industry is capable of delivering the PAK DA as envisaged remains subject to debate. It warrants brief mention that Russia could also deploy land-based conventional long-range strike systems and or conventionally-armed ballistic missiles. This would however, entail significant implications in particular with regard to US-Russian arms control arrangements (namely, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty) and strategic stability (especially relating to differentiating between the launch of a conventionally-armed or nuclear-armed ballistic missile). This will be discussed further below.

This paper first provides a brief overview of the LRA’s roles, current order of battle and modernisation efforts. Proceeding from this, Russia’s interest in developing long-range precision strike capabilities are outlined; this principally focuses on the LRA but also summarises naval developments and potential land-based elements. Finally, the role and contribution of the LRA to a conventional strategic strike capability and its implications for Russian military and wider national strategy is considered.

LRA Modernisation and Conventional Long-Range Strike

The LRA is responsible for the provision of Russia’s strategic airpower, including the airborne component of its strategic nuclear forces; it also has a theatre strike role and has assumed the maritime strike capability and Tu-22M3 Backfires formerly provided by the Russian Navy’s Naval Aviation. The LRA currently operates 72 Tu-95MS Bear (with an unrefuelled combat radius of 6,400 km) and 16 Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers (with an unrefuelled combat radius in excess of 7,000 km) plus 63 Tu-22M3 Backfire long-range bombers, including a number of Tu-22MR reconnaissance variants (the combat radius of the Backfire, depending on mission profile, is 1,500-2,410 km). It also operates 20 Ilyushin Il-78 and Il-78M Midas air-to-air refuelling aircraft. The LRA is a force in transition. It is in the midst of a major modernisation effort; the Bear, Blackjack and 30 Backfire bombers are being updated to Tu-95MSM, Tu-160M and Tu-22M3M standard respectively (a further 30 Backfires may be subsequently modernised); new tankers, including a variant of the Il-96 airliner, are planned to be acquired (albeit in small numbers at present); and a number of new air-launched missiles are in varying stages of development. In the longer term, the LRA is set to receive during the next decade, the first of its fifth generation PAK DA aircraft. This modernisation effort also reflects a wider, longer-term trend in Russian military thinking and procurement: that is, a focus on the development and acquisition of a significantly enhanced and expanded conventional precision strike capability. This is reflected in the intention to develop a conventional strategic deterrent component alongside Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.

Before discussing the LRA’s contribution to a conventional strategic deterrent capability, a summary of the wider composition of such a force is required. At present, aside from the Air Force, the principal contributor to a conventional strategic deterrent capability will be the Russian Navy. The Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Viktor Chirkov stated in 2014 that the core of the naval contribution would be submarine-based and centred on the nuclear-powered Project 885M Yasen (Graney) and modernised Project 949A Oscar-II classes and the diesel-electric powered Project 677 Lada-class. Surface ships, including modernised Ushakov-class nuclear-powered guided missile cruisers and potentially the planned Leader-class surface combatant, will also contribute to the force. Both the ships and submarines will be armed with either the 3M-14 land-attack variant of the Klub cruise missile (with a range potentially approaching 2,000 km) or the naval variant of the Kh-101. This is an extended-range (5,000 km plus) weapon reportedly incorporating low-observable technologies, a terminal guidance system and is equipped with a 400 kg warhead; it is also a core element of the LRA’s nascent conventional strategic strike capability.

Russia could deploy land-based missile systems as part of a conventional long strike capability. For example, the Iskander-K ground-launched cruise missile is a ground-launched variant of the 3M-14, ostensibly limited to a maximum 500 km range in order to comply with the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which banned all ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 500-5,500 km. In this regard, the deployment of a ground-launched conventional long-range strike system would be in violation of the INF Treaty and hold significant implications for the US-Russian arms control process and strategic stability (Russia has indeed been accused of testing a system which violates the INF Treaty). The use of conventionally-armed ballistic missiles could also be considered: a conventional warhead for the RSM-54 Sineva submarine-launched ballistic missile has been noted. However, conventionally-armed ballistic missiles, although promising in terms of speed of response and reduced vulnerability to interception, are inherently high-risk due to the potential for misunderstanding and escalation: put simply, how could a conventionally-armed Sineva launched from a submarine be discernible from a nuclear-armed Sineva also launched from a submarine?

How will the LRA contribute to a conventional deterrent capability? As noted above, a number of new air-launched missiles are in varying stages of development and deployment: of principal interest are the Kh-101, Kh-SD and work on high-speed weapons. The aforementioned Kh-101 (a nuclear variant, designated Kh-102 is also in development) has reportedly entered service with the LRA: 12 missiles can be carried internally by the Tu-160 Blackjack and eight externally by the Tu-95MS Bear. The entry into service of the Kh-101 will provide the LRA with a potent strategic precision strike capability due to the missiles’ extended range and low observable design, whilst reducing the vulnerability of Russian launch aircraft to interception (this is particularly important in light of the size of the LRA’s fleet). The Tu-22M3 Backfire may also be equipped with the Kh-101 (potentially four externally). If the Kh-101 is deployed on the Backfire, it would significantly enhance the utility of the aircraft; this will be discussed further below. The Kh-SD is a medium-range (up to 2,000 km) cruise missile, possibly derived from the Kh-101, and will arm the Bear (up to 14), the Blackjack (12 internally) and the Backfire (six to eight). Significantly, the Sukhoi Su-34 Fullback tactical strike aircraft will also reportedly be capable of carrying the Kh-SD. An interim conventional air-launched cruise missile, the Kh-555, derived from the Kh-55 (AS-15 Kent), is also in service with the LRA.

With regard to high-speed weapons, Russia is pursuing a twin-track approach, encompassing the development of both supersonic missile systems and in the longer-term, hypersonic missiles. The Kh-MT is an example of the former and is reportedly a ramjet-powered supersonic missile with a 1,000 km range intended to equip strategic aircraft. The missile’s dimensions are intended for it to be compatible with internal carriage by the Bear. Hypersonic weapons are an area of much Russian interest; Dmitry Rogozin, Deputy Prime Minister and deputy-head of the Military-Industrial Commission, for example, called for the PAK DA to be hypersonic. Further, Boris Obnosov, Director General of the Tactical Missiles Corporation – a leading Russian missile developer – has stated that an air-launched hypersonic missile may be developed by 2020: it is likely such a weapon would be deployed on LRA aircraft.

The development and deployment of the Kh-101, Kh-SD and other advanced conventional air-launched weapons, in conjunction with the expansion of the Russian Navy’s conventional long-range strike capability, will provide Russia with a much enhanced ability to project power. The implications for the LRA and wider Russian military and national strategy are now considered.

The LRA and Conventional Strategic Strike: Implications for Russian Strategy

The development of a conventional long-range strike capability will mark both a continuity and evolution of roles for the LRA. The LRA’s existing tasks of targeting an adversary’s strategic infrastructure, high-value military facilities and maritime strike (especially opposing carrier strike groups) will remain unchanged; the ability of the LRA to prosecute such targets as an element of a conventional, rather than nuclear, campaign will expand significantly. In addition, the acquisition of a credible conventional strategic strike capability may result in a shift away from the concept of ‘de-escalation’. Under this concept, Russia would, if engaged in a conventional conflict with a peer opponent (that is, NATO or perhaps China), conduct a limited nuclear strike against a military target (or perhaps a demonstrative detonation in an uninhabited area), likely using an air-launched cruise missile(s) in order to force a termination of hostilities. Although a Russian shift away from the concept of de-escalation would be positive, the deployment of a conventional strategic strike capability at the scale envisaged across air and maritime platforms would be potentially destabilising. This is due to three principal factors: firstly, Russian thinking on the utility of force as a means of causing national or international systemic disruption; secondly, the distribution of long-range strike systems across a variety of platforms, including in the context of the LRA, the Backfire; and thirdly, the implications for Russian strategy of possessing an enhanced conventional war-fighting capability.

It is beyond the scope of this article to provide a detailed analysis of Russian thinking concerning the future character of conflict; some brief comment is however necessary. Of particular interest is Russian thinking on the targeting of an adversary’s critical infrastructure in order to cause cascading effects through the economy, society and armed forces of the adversary. The interdependence of advanced economies on the efficient and uninterrupted functioning of the global economy, in particular its energy and transportation systems, and thus vulnerability to systemic disruption, was, for example, noted in a 2007 article in the leading Russian military journal Military Thought by the then Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Masorin. This vulnerability could be exploited ‘by affecting the economy of one or several countries, to trigger off unacceptable economic vacillations or crises in the entire coalition of potential adversaries’. Further, this poses the question of whether such thinking will be translated into the operational plans of a nascent Navy-Air Force conventional strategic deterrent force?

The acquisition of advanced long-range cruise missiles for the LRA (and wider Russian Air Force) will serve as a (relatively) low-cost force multiplier (by means of comparison and to provide a benchmark, a Tomahawk cruise missile costs around $1.5 million), providing a significantly enhanced means of conducting long-range strike with existing assets. Should the Kh-101 be integrated with the Backfire, that aircraft would also be capable of operating in the strategic, rather than its current sub-strategic role. The operational reach of a Backfire with the Kh-101 would, depending on mission profile, potentially exceed 8,000 km. The Russian Air Force has also expressed interest in utilising the Su-34 Fullback in the long-range nuclear strike role; the reported integration of the Kh-SD would add a conventional long-range strike capability. In the long-term, the Russian Air Force hopes to acquire 150-200 Su-34s (Russia currently operates, according to the IISS Military Balance 2015, 46 Fullbacks with a further 60 on order); if armed with the Kh-SD, the Su-34’s effective reach could, depending on mission profile, extend beyond 3,000 km. This highlights a key aspect of Russia’s investment in conventional long-range strike capabilities: the wide distribution of missile systems across platforms, thereby enhancing survivability and providing a multi-axis threat (compounded by the reported low observability of the Kh-101 and Kh-SD). The acquisition of the Kh-101 in particular will also aid in mitigating Russia’s limited air-to-air refuelling resources and access to overseas basing. It does warrant mention that tanker aircraft have forward-deployed to Egypt and Vietnam on at least one occasion in early 2015 to support LRA patrols; a Russian interest in securing access to overseas bases for its bombers remains with leading potential host nations including Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.

The rationale for developing a conventional strategic strike capability is reflective of Russia’s continuing focus on high-intensity warfare, in particular vis-á-vis the West (and perhaps China?). Russia is seeking to acquire the means to conduct extensive strikes at significant range against an adversary’s critical economic and military infrastructure; the efforts underway to equip the Navy and LRA with advanced long-range cruise missiles will provide this means. As the trajectory of Russia’s national policy and actions in Ukraine illustrates, it is deeply dissatisfied with the post-Cold War settlement and balance of power in Europe and is prepared to challenge it, militarily if necessary. In this respect, the acquisition of a useable conventional strategic strike capability may serve to reinforce Russian assertiveness, either toward the West in the Euro-Atlantic area or in regional contexts where hitherto Russia has been limited in its ability to project credible military power. Moreover, if the PAK DA programme is successful, that is, the Russian Air Force does indeed receive the only fifth generation low observable strategic bomber outside of the United States in sufficient numbers to be operationally effective, Russia’s ability to project power will be considerably enhanced.

The ability of the Russian defence industry to successfully deliver the PAK DA is uncertain. The extent to which the Sukhoi T-50 fighter programme is successful will provide some insight into whether the PAK DA can be delivered; the T-50 will provide Russia with a valuable learning experience concerning the manufacture of fifth generation aircraft. The impact of economic sanctions and the general downturn in Russian economic performance will also likely serve as a constraint on the programme, despite Russian ambitions to maintain sustained levels of defence spending. It thus may be necessary for Russia to pursue a less ambitious PAK DA. In this regard, stand-off weapons such as the Kh-101, Kh-SD and Kh-MT could reduce the need for a PAK DA to be capable of penetrating an adversary’s airspace and therefore the need for the incorporation of advanced – and expensive – stealth technologies (and manufacturing techniques). Such an approach would be counter to Russian ambitions for Great Power status, especially as the US is developing a new Long-Range Strike Bomber and China may be developing its own next-generation bomber (possibly designated the H-20).


The purpose of this article has been to provide an overview of Russian efforts to enhance the LRA’s conventional long-range strike capability within the context of a wider interest in developing a conventional strategic deterrent. In order to achieve this, Russia is actively developing a number of missiles for deployment on warships, submarines and aircraft, including most notably, the Kh-101 extended-range low observable cruise missile. The Kh-101, believed to be in full-scale production, will provide Russia with a particularly potent strategic precision strike capability from both long-range bombers and submarines. The deployment of the Kh-SD and supersonic Kh-MT will provide valuable medium-range capabilities, including in the case of the Kh-SD, the ability to utilise the Su-34 in a long-range strike role. The acquisition of the Kh-101, Kh-SD and Kh-MT will to an extent, revitalise the LRA pending the arrival of the PAK DA through providing the fleet of Bear, Backfire and Blackjack bombers with the ability to reach into otherwise denied airspace. It warrants mention that the Blackjack is capable of being used in the penetrating role; however, Blackjack numbers are extremely limited and not resilient to attrition. Moreover, Backfire numbers are diminishing (the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent economic turmoil afflicting Russia through the 1990s prevented replacement projects achieving the hardware stage); the Bear fleet is believed to be in a satisfactory state and could serve until the 2040s contingent on continued maintenance and upgrades.

Although the acquisition of new long-range missiles and the modernisation of existing aircraft will enhance the LRA’s operational capabilities, the long-term prospects for the force are ultimately dependent on it receiving new aircraft. In this respect, the PAK DA programme is critical to the LRA. The impact of economic sanctions and wider economic uncertainty in Russia may serve as a constraint on the PAK DA programme; conversely, the programme is seen as a central element in long-term rearmament plans and its symbolic value as an indicator of Great Power status should not be underestimated. The PAK DA is also reflective of a wider Russian investment in developing its airpower capabilities; in addition to the PAK DA and Sukhoi T-50, work on a replacement for the MiG-31 Foxhound interceptor (known as PAK DP – ‘Prospective Air Complex for Long-Range Interception’), an unmanned combat air vehicle and research into sixth generation air systems is underway. Sustained investment in upgrading Russia’s intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capabilities is also required in order to ensure the effectiveness of both the Russian Air Force and Navy’s long-range strike systems.

The development of a conventional long-range strike capability constitutes a major priority for the modernisation and rearmament of the Russian Armed Forces. If successfully implemented to its full extent, the planned integration of long-range cruise missiles, and in the mid-to-long term new aircraft, into the LRA order of battle will result in a significantly enhanced ability to project power. This could be utilised to underpin a conventional component to Russia’s overall strategic deterrent posture thus reducing its reliance on nuclear forces. However, a conventional strategic strike capability could be employed to reinforce Russia’s increasingly assertive national policy and desire for Great Power status. Moreover, the possession of a credible and useable strategic capability could be employed as an instrument of coercion. In either context, the LRA is likely to remain a central element in Russian military strategy: how it is employed will be determined by the course of Russian national policy in the coming years.

Eastern European states are faced with a variety of airborne challenges to the command of their air space and to their infrastructure and citizens, including the return of more traditional ballistic missile threats, aerial reconnaissance and more general trends in the field of air defence. Learn more about countering these threats by registering for the Integrated Air and Missile Defence Eastern Europe event taking place in Warsaw 28-30 July, 2015.

Dr James Bosbotinis
Posted: 03/05/2015

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