This week, Russia expanded on its campaign in Syria with a series of 34 air-launched cruise missile strikes, perhaps even eclipsing the October 7 cruise missile launches from Russia’s Caspian Flotilla. Just as with the ship-based missile strikes, the United States should pay attention to this air vector of attack from Russia’s mainland, and the deployment of the new Kh-101 missile along with the modernized Kh-555. Russia’s bomber force is not an anachronism, but still breathes life. The sorties targeted Idlib, Aleppo, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State capital of Raqqa, although it is unclear what they actually hit. Russian airstrikes come on the heels of Moscow’s official confirmation that the MetroJet airliner was indeed brought down by an Islamic State bomb over Sinai. The introduction of Russian long-range aviation, employing an entirely different family of missiles, is a combination of official retribution, publicity, and capability testing. Russia’s bomber strikes were in part meant for its domestic audience as a reprisal to the Islamic State’s terrorist attack in a manner that goes visibly above and beyond the existing air campaign.
Beyond the publicity lies a real capability test. From bases in mainland Russia, five Tu-160 Blackjack, six Tu-95MS Bear and 14 Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers set out for Syria with an escort of Su-27SM fighters and deployed what appeared to be a series of Kh-555 air-to-ground missiles (the conventional variant of the Kh-55). More interesting was footage of new Kh-101 long-range air-to-ground missiles shown loaded inside Russian bombers in a rotary launcher (its nuclear tipped variant is Kh-102), and supposedly fired. Meanwhile, the large group of Tu-22M3s, Russia’s mainstay anti-ship bomber, made do with a large complement of gravity bombs for the missions. The results remain to be seen, as no doubt some percentage of the missiles fell short or malfunctioned, as roughly 15 percent of those fired from the Caspian last month did. Russia’s RT also reported a strike launched from a submarine in the eastern Mediterranean, but this remains at best a rumor, although it is quite possible a sea strike was conducted by Kalibr-capable ships from either the Caspian or Black Sea fleets.
As recently as this summer, the Russian air force was ridiculed in the West, particularly with respect to its long-range aviation capabilities. Having suffered a large spate of accidents, Russia grounded its Tu-95 bomber fleet in July. In August, I wrote an article for War on the Rocks discussing the impact Russia’s bomber overflights had on U.S. strategic perceptions of Moscow’s intent, despite wearing out its air force. It seems Russian bombers are back, and this time not for show, but to demonstrate the capability to conduct long-range precision strikes. While these aircraft likely represent the smaller operational component of a bomber force that looks much larger on paper, the large arsenal of missiles that even a few Tu-95MS or Tu-160s carry is an important multiplier. The 14 Tu-22M3s that Russia launched simultaneously (out of a supposed 60), on a 4,510-kilometer sprint to Syria, is no doubt of note to the U.S. Navy. This aircraft remains tasked with wiping out U.S. carriers by firing truck-sized Kh-22 (AS-4) anti-ship missiles. Moscow’s bomber force remains a traditional component of its nuclear triad, but also forms a useful element in its quest for conventional deterrence, conferring the ability to reach out and touch the U.S. or NATO allies at great range.
Michael Kofman is a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute and an Analyst at CNA Corporation. Previously he served as Program Manager at National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo credit: Andrey Belenko