Russia's Supersonic Tu-160 Bomber Is Back: Should America Worry?

Russia is going to begin production of the Tu-160, a Soviet-era bomber known as the “Blackjack.” How should America respond? 

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Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu announced recently that Russia is going to begin production of the Tu-160, a Soviet-era bomber known as the “Blackjack.” The Tu-160 is a nuclear platform, basically something like the Soviet version of an American B-1 bomber: a big, heavy, swing-wing bomber meant to deliver nuclear weapons at long distances. The Soviets built about thirty-five of them in the 1980s, of which only fifteen remain in service.

So what does this mean to the strategic balance between the United States and the Russian Federation in 2015? In reality, it means absolutely nothing in military terms. As a political signal, however, Shoigu’s announcement is just the latest in a series of provocations. No American response is required and none would matter.

The Blackjack, assuming the Russians even manage to build any more of them, is a perfectly capable nuclear bomber that, in time of war, would fold back its swan-like wings and dart toward its targets at top speed. Once in range, it would launch cruise missiles that would make the last part of their journey low and slow under enemy radar. This is pretty much what all bombers would do in a nuclear war. (The one major advantage of the American B-2 is that it could penetrate farther into enemy airspace with less chance of detection.)

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To worry about the extra capability of additional Blackjacks, however, requires believing that nuclear bombers matter at all in 2015. During the Cold War, when a “triad” of land, air and sea weapons were the guarantee against a massive surprise attack, both sides invested in various tripartite combinations of ICBMs, sea-launched weapons and bombers. In a massive first-strike, at least some of these weapons would survive and destroy the aggressor, which is why no one could contemplate doing it. (The Soviets likely did not contemplate it very seriously in any case. There’s an interesting declassified CIA report from 1973 you can read here.)

Today, no one seriously worries that the Russians or the Americans will, or can, execute a disabling first strike against the other. A “BOOB,” or “Bolt-Out-Of-the-Blue,” is neither politically likely, nor militarily feasible. The days when command and control, satellites and even strategic delivery systems themselves were all far more shaky are long gone. The ideological competition between two global systems, in which one would seek to destroy the other as rapidly as possible, is also over.

Moreover, the sheer number of strategic weapons isn’t up to the job. In 1981, the United States and the Soviet Union fielded a total of nearly 50,000 weapons against each other. Strategic targets, including opposing nuclear forces, numbered in the thousands. Today, in accordance with the New START treaty, Russia and America will only deploy 1550 warheads each. (Coincidentally, this week marks the fourth anniversary of New START.) Even if both sides were committed to a first strike, there aren’t enough weapons to do it: 1550 means 1550, and it doesn’t matter what platform—bomber, ICBM or submarine—is carrying them.

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So why are the Russians even bothering to do this?

For starters, not everything is about us. The Russians have a huge nuclear infrastructure, and a military obsessed with symbols of nuclear power. Building more nuclear toys makes everyone happy: Russia’s nuclear military-industrial complex gets jobs and money, the military gets its nuclear security blanket, and Russian leaders like Shoigu and President Vladimir Putin get to thump their chests about holding back the nuclear savagery of Barack Obama. Outside of Russia, no one except nuclear wonks like me even know what a Tu-160 is, but Russians know of it and many are likely proud of it.

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The part that is about us is more disturbing. The Russians, and Putin in particular, have decided to forego any further pretense of accepting the outcome of the Cold War. Some foreign-policy realists lay Putin’s aggressiveness at NATO’s door, and rightly point out that NATO expansion needlessly handed Russian nationalists a cause. But Putin, it should now be obvious, was never going to accept the Soviet loss. His feints at cooperation were unsustainable, and his Soviet-era nostalgia for the days of the USSR has reasserted itself with a vengeance. If Putin can’t get along with a U.S. president as passive and accommodating as Barack Obama, he can’t get along with anyone.

That’s why the United States has no play to make here, other than to remind the Russians of two things.

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