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.
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