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Meet Russia's 'New' Tu-22M3M Bomber: "A Nasty Surprise for the U.S. Navy"

Meet Russia's 'New' Tu-22M3M Bomber: "A Nasty Surprise for the U.S. Navy"

The Russian air force is scheduled to start taking Tu-22M3M deliveries in 2021, while dozens of Tu-22M3’s will be retrofitted with the M3M upgrade package over the coming years.

In what is the latest sighting of Russia’s much-anticipated strategic bomber, the official television channel of the Russian Defense Ministry has released footage of the Tu-22M3M in action.

The one-minute clip, posted earlier this week, offers extended takeoff, flight, and landing shots. There was no footage from inside the cockpit, which is perhaps a missed opportunity to corroborate Tupolev’s recurring talking point that the Tu-22M3M boasts 80% new avionics over the original Tu-22M. According to Tupolev’s press office, “The replacement of 80% [of the plane’s] avionics will improve navigation accuracy and level of automation, and streamline its technical maintenance as well as preflight routine.” Notably, the additions will include GLONASS navigation system integration, a digital onboard interface, modernized glass cockpit, and electronic warfare countermeasures (ECM)."

It is unsurprising that the manufacturer is going out of their way to stress the Tu-22M3M’s revamped internal components, given that the bomber’s chassis is otherwise nearly identical to its predecessors. This approach also displayed with the upcoming Tu-160M2 bomber and recently produced A-50U reconnaissance plane, is a core pillar in Russia’s air force modernization strategy: filling tried-and-true Soviet era chassis designs with new technical guts, thereby keeping R&D costs to a minimum and expediting development cycles.

As important as updated avionics are in the age of modern warfare, the centerpiece of the Tu-22M3M upgrade package is the inclusion of up to three new Kh-32 missiles. While classified as anti-ship missiles, the Kh-32 was also developed to also be effective against critical infrastructure targets like bridges and power plants. It is this newfound offensive flexibility that has led defense analyst Dmitry Kornev to describe the Tu-22M3M as “occupying a unique position between strategic and operational-tactical roles,” as opposed to heavier aircraft like the Tu-160 that exist squarely in the heavy strategic bomber camp. The Tu-22M3M, along with its M3 predecessor and MiG-31K, will be among the handful of currently operational Russian aircraft confirmed to be compatible with the nuclear-capable, Mach 10 speed Kh-47 “Kinzhal” missile unveiled at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2018 address to the federal assembly.

Military expert Yuri Knutov noted that the Tu-22M3M is not only a valuable addition to the air component of Russia’s nuclear triad, but the spearhead of a new power projection strategy to counter American to counter carrier strike groups operating in Russia’s sphere of influence: “The VKS [Russian air force] is undergoing an infrastructure update, in which the Tu-22M3M will have a role to play. The bomber will likely be able to land in most terminals, using them take-off points. Particularly important is the opportunity to transfer the Tu-22M3M to Crimea. American destroyers regularly enter the Black Sea. If tensions sharpen, the proliferation of [Tu-22M3M] bombers on the Crimean peninsula will become a nasty surprise for the US Navy.”  Tu-22M3 bombers were frequently sighted in Crimea and the larger Black Sea area over the coming years, but it appears that the Russian air force is now pursuing a more deliberate policy of long-range power projection in that region.

The Russian air force is scheduled to start taking Tu-22M3M deliveries in 2021, while dozens of Tu-22M3’s will be retrofitted with the M3M upgrade package over the coming years.

Mark Episkopos is a frequent contributor to The National Interest and serves as research assistant at the Center for the National Interest. Mark is also a PhD student in History at American University.

Image: Creative Commons.