Russia plans to fly bomber aircraft in the Arctic this year, according to a senior Russian military official.
During a May 18th interview with a local newspaper, the Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), Sergei Kobylash, commander of the Aerospace Forces’ long-range aviation, said Russia would fly its Tu-160 supersonic strategic bomber in the Arctic. “This year, we plan to fly Tu-160s to Anadyr,” Kobylash said in Sputnik News . He added: “The Arctic is of strategic importance to us and we have been exploring new airfields and other ways of beefing up security on the maritime border.”
Anadyr, the most eastern Russian town in the Arctic, is located roughly 500 miles away from Alaska. Last October, Russia conducted an air exercise in Anadyr that included Tu-22M3 aircraft flying to the area for the first time. “In total, more than 20 aircraft, Tu-22M3 long-range bombers, and Il-78 tanker aircraft, 5 airfields and 2 ranges in different areas of the Russian Federation are involved in the exercise,” Russia’s Ministry of Defense said at the time . Sergei Kobylash oversaw that drill as well, which the Ministry of Defense indicated was partially to practice inflight refueling.
The Tu-160 bomber has been in the news quite often lately. As The National Interest previously noted , in March of this year Moscow announced it was completely overhauling its Tu-160 fleet. “We are going to purchase the entire fleet of our strategic Tu-160 bombers in their new version and carry out heavy upgrade of operational aircraft where only the fuselage will remain while all the onboard radio-electronic equipment and engines will be replaced,” Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov said on March 28 . Borisov said that the new fleet will be ready sometime around 2030.
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The Tu-160 was, of course, initially a late Cold War era plane. It was first flight tested in 1982 and entered into service in 1987. It was said to be the counterpart to America’s B-1 bomber, although unlike that plane, the Tu-160 continues to have a nuclear role. Russia is believed to have around fifteen or sixteen of the original planes, after having built twenty-five or so of them.
In 2015, Russia announced that it was reopening production of the Tu-160 obstinably as a stopgap measure before its next generation bomber came online. Although Moscow still maintains that its new bomber, called the PAK DA, is in the works, it seems to be increasingly focused on modernizing the Tu-160. At every turn, Moscow has sought to emphasize that the new Tu-160s are a different breed from the initial Cold War ones. “[It] only looks like the Tu-160 I flew,” Putin said during a campaign stop earlier this year. “But it’s a completely different machine.”
A former Russian fighter pilot, Vladimir Popov, also filled in some more details : “Even though on the outside it looks much like its predecessor, Tu-160MS2 will be a whole new aircraft with a new fire control and navigation gear, advance system of electronic jamming, a new cockpit and more fuel-saving engines.” In addition, Popov said that the new engine would extend the plane’s range by one thousand kilometers, which will reportedly bring it up to twelve thousand kilometers without refueling.
The overflights over the Arctic are part of a larger effort by Russia to re-establish a strong military presence in the region as rising temperatures make it more hospitable. This includes building a 151,000 square foot military base in an ice-covered, desolate archipelago called Franz Josef Land. Moscow has also built a military airstrip in the area. The Franz Josef Land base was at least the second one built by Vladimir Putin for air defense purposes, with the first being located in Northern Clover on Kotelny Island. The BBC noted at the time that “Russia is building four other Arctic military bases - at Rogachevo, Cape Schmidt, Wrangel and Sredniy.” Moscow is also restoring former Soviet bases in places like Alakurtti near Finland.
Russia is hardly alone in rushing to reap the economic benefits of a warming Arctic, but it is arguably the most active in the region. In a 2016 report on the Arctic Sea , the U.S. Department of Defense noted that “more than 20 percent of Russia’s landmass lies above the Arctic Circle.” Officially, eight countries are considered Arctic nations; the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Russia. Other countries, most notably China, have also been active in the region.
The Pentagon went on to describe Russia as having four main interests in the Arctic, starting with “a national strategic resource base to support the country’s socio-economic development.” The same report noted that Russia makes what America considers “excessive maritime claims” regarding its regulation of three international straits along the Northern Sea Route (NSR). “Russia's NSR regulations require permits for ships, including sovereign immune vessels, to transit the NSR, which includes all of the territorial sea and EEZ of Russia’s claimed Arctic waters,” the 2016 Department of Defense report says. “The United States has protested these excessive maritime claims as inconsistent with international law and does not recognize them.”