Russia’s fleet of rusty strategic bombers has seen better days. For one, they haven’t seen significant upgrades in decades. For two, the fleet is less than half the size of America’s combined force of conventional B-52s, B-1Bs and B-2 stealth bombers. And with plans by the U.S. to build a stealthy new bomber augmented by a plethora of new drones, Russia risks not only being left behind, but being put out to pasture. There is also NATO’s deployment of missile interceptors in Europe for Russia to worry about.
Enter Russia’s boss for life — and newly re-coronated president — Vladimir Putin. During a defense budget meeting Thursday after visiting a base in southern Russia, Putin said he’s serious about developing a new stealthy bomber, the PAK-DA. And if development does not start soon, Russia might be left behind, Putin warned, according to news agency RIA Novosti.
“We have to develop work on the new PAK-DA long-range bomber aircraft,” Putin said. “I know how expensive and complex this is. We have talked about this many times with ministers, and with the head of the General Staff. The task is not easy from a scientific-technical standpoint, but we need to start work.” Putin also said Russia needs to finish development of its new AWACS early-warning aircraft, the A-100.
Oh, and Putin wants drones, too. A lot of them.
“We need a program for unmanned aircraft. Experts say this is a most important area of development in aviation,” he said. “We need a range of all types, including automated strike aircraft, reconnaissance and other types.” Russia is allegedly spending $13 billion on unmanned aerial vehicles through 2020.
Putin is not wrong about long-range strategic bombers being tough to develop. Russia is having trouble enough modernizing its existing fleet of 63 ancient Tu-95 turboprop bombers and 13 Tu-160 bombers, obsolete outside of a nuclear war because the planes are unable to drop precision-guided bombs. Russia has also developed a new stealth fighter prototype, the T-50, but with fewer capabilities than its U.S. counterparts. The PAK-DA is also still very much a concept at this point, expected to enter serviceno sooner than 2025, if even then. But while it’s important to consider what the bombers’ capabilities are, it’s even more important to think about who might be their likely targets.
It’s been a week of accusations and recriminations between the U.S. and Russia. Washington accused Moscow of supplying attack helicopters to Syria for a war against civilians, while Russia accused the U.S. of arming the Syrian opposition. And then there’s the missile shield.
“It would be better if our partners did not do this, because actions that could lead to the devaluation of our strategic nuclear capability will unavoidably provoke an appropriate reaction,” Putin said on Thursday. ”Whatever you call it, this has some elements of an arms race.” Obama and Putin will also meet for the first time next week as presidents in Los Cabos, Mexico. The relationship — compared to the one that existed during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev — has soured.
“The reset failed to change the underlying suspicion and distrust of America shared by a majority of Russians as well as Putin himself,” Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told The New York Times.
And after all, who are new bombers intended to be used against, in the event of a war? Last weekend, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, chief of the Russian general staff, appeared in press reports regarding the bomber’s development. ”If we reach production phase, this plane will outperform any modern aircraft of the same class, including those built by the Americans,” he said.
That’s unlikely. There are also questions whether Russia (or the US, for that matter) even needs an expensive new bomber.
Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said Russia doesn’t need one. “Look at the level of development of anti-aircraft and anti-missile defences: all these planes will never get near their targets,” he said to Russian newspaper Izvestia. That conclusion was mirrored last year by Barry Watts, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, who argued in a report that advances in radar may “in the near future, obviate the ability of all-aspect, low observable aircraft” from bombers — possibly including the Air Force’s planned $55 billion stealth bomber.
But military realities often have to take a backseat to political ones. For one, the Obama administration needs Russia more than Russia needs Obama. The US depends on Russia in order to resupply land-locked troops in Afghanistan. The US also depends on Russia to help stop Iran’s nuclear program. But Russia — more specifically, Putin — might not see it that way.