Russia vs. America: A Nuclear Bomber Showdown

Who wins?

In the previous articles “These Russian Nukes Are Better Than America’s” and “U.S. vs Russia: Struggling for Undersea Nuclear Supremacy” we reviewed the strategic nuclear balance between Russia and the United States in the context of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (IСBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), respectively. We have also examined in detail the issue of the total number of strategic carriers and nuclear warheads in the arsenals of these countries and their compliance with the New Start Treaty, which reduces the number of carriers to seven hundred and the number of warheads to 1,550.

In this article, we will address the last component of nuclear forces left: strategic bombers. In the U.S. and Russian arsenals, bombers make the least share of strategic nuclear forces—5.5 percent of the warheads owned by Washington (eighty-five bombers, each equaling one warhead according to the New Start Treaty) and around 3 percent of those owned by Russia (approximately fifty bombers in service).

At first sight this is a very small share representing no significant contribution. Nevertheless, there is a “but”: although a strategic bomber is accounted for one warhead, in reality it carries many more. For example, the Russian Tu-160 “White Swan” (NATO reporting name: Blackjack) can carry up to twelve strategic cruise missiles with nuclear warheads; therefore, the real capacity of strategic bombers is not accurately expressed on paper. In general, though, they have both pros and cons over IСBMs. Among the advantages of bombers, one can mention a significant unpredictability of attack direction, the ability to change a combat mission in flight and the ability to use nonnuclear precision weapons in local and regional conflicts. As for the main drawback, one can name lower action speed during a strike-back—modern IСBMs require five minutes for pre-start preparation at most, which is not the case for aviation. On the other hand, when there are several aircraft on alert in the sky, it is almost impossible to destroy them with a preventive strike over the “home” territory. However, from a technical point of view, the interception of a bomber or cruise missile is currently more feasible than effective missile defense.

Let us now turn our attention to the parties’ strategic aviation in more detail, and compare the efficiency of their current weapons.


The United States: A “Ghost” Without Missiles and the “Good Old” B-52

According to U.S. Department of State data, as of January 1, 2016, there are currently twelve B-2 Spirit and seventy-three B-52H Stratofortress bombers on alert. There is yet another bomber, which was earlier classified as strategic—the B-1B Lancer—however, the aircraft had no possibility of carrying nuclear weapons and has been excluded from the list, for reasons we will discuss below.

Let us begin with the B-52H, which, despite its great age (the equipment currently in service was manufactured in the 1960s, so it is already over fifty years old) remains practically the only carrier of strategic cruise missiles in the U.S. Army. I am talking about AGM-86B ALCM missiles, whose air range is more than 2,400 kilometers. There are also precision nonnuclear modifications of these missiles in service, which hit their targets at a distance of up to 1,200 kilometers. This makes the B-52 the main nuclear deterrence aircraft.

As for the B-2 Spirit, the plane is the most high-tech and expensive bomber in the world. These aircraft were first put in service as early as 1994. A total of twenty-one vehicles were issued, followed by the end of production—the enormous price took its toll. Accounting for the design costs, the price of one B-2 is a fantastic $2.1 billion. For this money the United States obtained a Stealth vehicle with one of the lowest radar cross-section parameters (RCS); the lower this parameter is, the less conspicuous an object is for hostile radars. Moreover, there is some indirect information indicating that the RCS of the huge B-2 is lower than that of the small F-22 and F-35 Stealth fighters. Originally, this was planned to be used to enter a hostile air defense area for attack. However, modern Russian radars are able to detect targets of this type—lower observability only reduces the distance of detection, but does not exclude it completely. Given the fact that B-2s are equipped with free-fall nuclear bombs only, and carry no strategic cruise missiles, an effective deep attack on an opponent such as Russia seems extremely unlikely. For example, the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system detects “ordinary” targets at distances of up to six hundred kilometers. Even if the same B-2 is “seen” at a distance of only two hundred or one hundred kilometers, it will not manage to drop bombs in time. Contemporary and modernized fighters such as the Su-30SM, Su-35S and MiG-31BM can also be involved in pursuing “ghosts.” It is this fact that makes the B-2 a somewhat awkward aircraft: despite its record price, its actual role in a hypothetical global nuclear conflict would negligible. The aircraft is more suitable (and often used) for nonnuclear attacks in local conflicts.