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Outside View: Russia's Blackjack power

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Nkita Petrov
Moscow (UPI) May 6, 2008
On April 29 representatives of the Kazan Aircraft Production Association presented the 121st Heavy Bomber Regiment of the Russian Air Force's 37th Army with a brand-new Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bomber.

The warplane is named after Vitaly Kopylov, who headed the company from 1973 to1993.

Russia now has 16 front-line Tu-160 bombers, each of which can carry 12 X-55 subsonic nuclear-tipped cruise missiles with a range of more than 1,800 miles. Each bomber can carry up to 40 metric tons of ordnance, including conventional X-55 missiles.

Before December 1991 the Soviet Union had 36 Tu-160 bombers. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine seized 20 of these in the city of Priluki. Under the Lisbon Agreement among Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, the United States and Russia, the former three countries were not allowed to have any nuclear weapons or their delivery vehicles. Twelve Ukrainian strategic bombers were eventually cut up in the presence of international inspectors and journalists.

After protracted talks, the remaining eight Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjacks were transferred to Russia as payment for Kiev's gas debts. However, the planes had to be overhauled at KAPO, which is still upgrading some of them.

According to official military documents, the Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack is intended to "launch conventional and nuclear weapons against vital targets in remote regions and in the deep rear of continental theaters of war." Unlike the U.S. Boeing B-1 Lancer bomber, the Tu-160 has never taken part in such military operations. Instead of being part of the Mutual Assured Destruction concept, the Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack serves to deter possible aggression.

From the late 1980s and until the early 1990s, Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjacks bombers flew regular patrol missions over the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans. They carried no weapons, although Moscow did not tell anyone about this.

The Russian Air Force high command said its strategic bombers, which resumed flying regular patrol missions over the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans from Aug. 17, 2007, carried only dummy weapons.

Their crews conduct bombing runs over Russian territory. Russian strategic bombers flying routine missions in the North Atlantic are shadowed by NATO fighters.

Col. Gen. Alexander Zelin, commander in chief of the Russian air force, said this was also a good way to train NATO crews.

Both sides do their best to avoid direct confrontation. The NATO pilots keep their distance. In fact, the professionalism of Russian and Western air crews has so far prevented any emergencies.

The media sometimes report incidents involving Russian bombers buzzing U.S. aircraft carriers. According to Gen. Zelin, Russian pilots do not violate any international agreements or safety precautions.

Although Moscow is not obliged to notify its NATO partners about all upcoming patrol missions involving Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack and Tupolev Tu-95 Bear bombers, it does so on a regular basis.

Zelin said bomber crews commanded by young captains and majors would fly up to 30 patrol missions per month, and that 40 missions had been flown in January-March 2008. He said 40 crews had been trained to fly in polar regions without any visible landmarks or reference points, and that pilots had logged an average of 70 hours of flight time.

The Vitaly Kopylov strategic bomber will help implement combat-training programs. The Russian Air Force is to receive four to five more upgraded Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjacks before the year is out.

(Nikita Petrov is a Russian military analyst. This article is reprinted permission of RIA Novosti. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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