An Awakening Bear?


The recent deployment of a the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier task force to the Mediterranean and extensive long-range Russian military aircraft operations since last July indicate an attempt by President Vladimir Putin to demonstrate that the Soviet Union must again be considered a world power. While these activities have taken place in the Eastern Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Western Pacific, they reveal the lack of "depth" of the Russian armed forces.

For example, the Admiral Kuznetsov -- actually the Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov -- is Russia's only aircraft carrier. The 59,100-ton ship, completed in 1991, had not deployed to the Mediterranean in four years. While the Russian Navy and government officials consider that the task force's deployment from the Northern (Arctic) Fleet, where the Admiral Kuznetsov is based, plus two ships from the Black Sea Fleet, the Navy has only some 18 Su-33 Flanker-D shipboard fighters to operate from the carrier.  The "flattop" also embarks one or more Su-25 Frogfoot trainers and helicopters. Such an air group pales in comparison to the approximately 70 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters embarked in each of the U.S. Navy's 11 carriers.

Similarly, long-range flights by Russian aircraft have been "dramatic" -- especially when overflying U.S. carriers -- but have not demonstrated much military capability. The large four-turboprop Tu-95 Bear -- flown by the Russian Air Force as a missile-armed strategic strike aircraft -- have made periodic long-range flights since 1999 after a hiatus of such flights for several years. But such flights pose little threat to Western warships, especially if Western carrier- or land-based radar warning aircraft are available. These Bears are updated variants of the Tu-20/95, which first flew in 1955.

The Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-22M Backfire missile-armed strike aircraft have also made these flights. These are newer, turbojet aircraft, which first flew in 1987 and 1974, respectively, and are more of a potential threat although they have less range than the Bear and there are very few Blackjacks in service. The Air Force is estimated by the magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology to have only 16 to 18 operational Tu-160s, and less than a dozen Tu-22Ms. However, the Russian Navy has more than 100 Backfires, and those have been making some of the recent long-range flights.

While those flights have been made primarily for political purposes and, probably, to train air crews in long-range navigation and search, the Western press has been quick to label them provocative. UPI on 12 February declared, "Russia ratcheted up tensions with the United States over the weekend by reportedly having one of its bombers overfly the USS Nimitz off the coast of Japan."

Both Putin and his hand-picked successor, Dimitri Medvedev, plan to allocate more of the money flowing into Russia from oil and gas sales to military programs, especially to combat aircraft.  However, it will be many years -- some analysts estimate decades -- until the Russian Air Force and Navy will again pose a major threat to U.S. forces -- assuming that future administrations continue at least the current level of investment in the U.S. armed forces.

-- Norman Polmar

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