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

The article can be found in its original form at The National Interest here and was republished with permission.

By Dr. Tom Nichols

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.)

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.

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.

President Vladimir Putin in the cockpit of a TU-160 in August 2005

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.

First, if we react to Shoigu, we should note only that the United States has a fully capable deterrent that cannot be destroyed, and that we have no interest in Russian bombers, so long as they do not exceed New START’s warhead limits. We do not need to create a new nuclear system, or start returning nuclear weapons to Europe. If Russia means war, they know it will end in 2015 the way it would have ended in 1965: with the destruction of most of Russia and North America, and the deaths of millions of innocent people.

More important, we must reaffirm our commitment to NATO, because Europe, not America, is really the intended audience for Russia’s nuclear antics. Bringing back the Tu-160 is another of the Kremlin’s many attempts to scare the Europeans with the same threat the Russians have been harping on since the 1950s: “If war comes, the Americans will be so afraid of us they will not lift a finger to help you.” Each time we ignore these threats, we encourage more of them.

The way to reassure NATO is match Russian moves not with nuclear threats, but with conventional forces, as U.S. ambassador Steven Pifer and others have argued. This is what the Russians fear most, because they know that the Cold War equation is now flipped, with Russia the weaker conventional power. If Shoigu wants to build more of his pretty bombers, that’s his business, but no Russian leader should think that an attack on NATO can produce anything but a Russian conventional loss, at which point the Russians will have to think about whether they want to face the escalatory burden that once haunted NATO.

Our reaction to Russia’s nuclear threats should be no reaction at all, other than to affirm our ability to defend ourselves—and the most populous, wealthy and powerful alliance in human history—as the mature and confident superpower that we are.

Tom Nichols is Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College and an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School. His most recent book is No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security (University of Pennsylvania, 2014) The views expressed are solely his own. You can follow him on Twitter: @RadioFreeTom

6 thoughts on “Russia’s Supersonic Tu-160 Bomber Is Back: Should America Worry?”

  1. Well I am no nuclear wonk; but having served in nine ships in the U.S. Navy, and four during the 80s alone, I certainly remember the Blackjack and the Backfire. I guess we didn’t have your information; but it wasn’t clear to me that we wouldn’t be targeted. No sleep lost; but I think your glibness is misplaced.

    1. The White Swan was never really deployed, and it was not introduced until the late ’80s. There was no point in bringing out the new shiny with the Flying Bears doing the job, a Mach 2 capable, extreme range strategic bomber isn’t a bad ace in the hole to have. Bringing it out unless needed would have only led to pointless escalation.

      I’m not a nuclear wonk either, but I am ex-Soviet, we’re quite proud of the White Swan, even if just because it’s so pretty and majestic looking. Hey, we didn’t have much to feel good about during the ’90s, and took what we could get.

      That aside, the whole blah blah about who “won” the cold war is silly. Everyone won the Cold War. And the blah blah about a nuclear threat being directed at Europe is just that, the only party to benefit from that is the US, in that it gets to act like NATO hasn’t outlived its usefulness. The merging of the Eurasian Union and Chinese Silk Roads projects have Europe at its heart, they’re looking for raproachement with the EU, the US stands to lose from this, and as such seeks to distance the two. We’re not stupid enough enough to not see it.

      That being said, the cold war never actually ended, at least not on the vitriolic propaganda end, and I wasn’t aware that NATO was more populous or had a larger economy than BRICS. In terms of powerful, the emerging Sino-Russian alliance, I think, can very much give NATO a run for its money, but if auto-felatio is what does it for you, go right ahead, but pretending like an unanswered first-strike is feasible, or acting non-plussed about the possibility of nuclear escalation simply because the roles have been reversed, that’s actually scary, because such an attitude is that of someone who is deathly afraid.

  2. I think this is more serious than the author would suggest. Firstly, additional Tu-160s are likely to be updated from the original, and more capable than the Cold War era aircraft, of which 15 or so are still in service. Certainly, their payloads of air-launched cruise missiles will be more sophisticated. The expanded Tu-160 force must also be incorporated to the existing Tu-95 Bear H and Tu-22M3 Backfires, and the more modern Su-34 Fullback strike aircraft that Russia is now deploying. So this does represent an expansion and modernisation of Russia’s airborne long-range bomber capability, with obvious implication for CONUS air defence, the threat to naval carrier strike groups, and NATO’s air defence. Add in the eventual development of PAK-DA, and the Russian bomber force starts to look quite sophisticated, when compared to an ageing US B-52H, B-1B and even the B-2A force that will struggle to operate against sophisticated Russian double-digit SAMs and networked GBADS, which will include VHF counter-stealth radars The B-1s have been reconfigured to a non-nuclear role, and the B-2As exist only in small numbers. The LRS-B is on the horizon, but there is no guarantee that the US will get them in large numbers.

    So, from a purely military-tactical perspective, I’d argue that the US should take the Russian bomber threat more seriously, especially given the Russians seem determined to deploy them close to US and NATO airspace. We need to start thinking about how to defend against multi-axis ALCM threats (be they nuclear or non-nuclear) launched from such aircraft, and the best way to do that is to shoot the archer before he releases his arrow – intercept the bomber before it can launch multiple ALCMs.

    From a strategic perspective this is another strong indication that the Russians take nuclear weapons and operations far more seriously than does the US. There is no moral or ethical agonising on their part over the employment of nuclear weapons; no desire by them to embrace nuclear abolition. In contrast, the US seems trapped in an increasingly outdated mindset which argues that nuclear weapons should be operationally and strategically de-emphasised as a step towards their eventual abolition, irrespective of the fact that virtually every other nuclear weapons state is modernising and expanding their nuclear forces. Although the 2010 NPR and the 2013 Nuclear Doctrine continues to reinforce the need for nuclear deterrence, the decay of US nuclear infrastructure; the collapse of morale and professionalism in relation to the nuclear mission, particularly within USAF missile communities; and the lack of attention to nuclear operations in general suggests that the US is out of touch with a rapidly changing strategic environment. Put simply, this is not the 1990s or early 2000s, when Russia was a ‘strategic partner’. Now they are clearly an adversary, and for them, nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy matter. The US needs to re-engage with the nuclear mission in a big way.

  3. 1500 is “deployed” nuclear warheads. A patently fake number as the author is well aware.

    The *real* number is nuclear stockpile – which is a misnomer itself because such “stockpile” can be rearmed and deployed in minutes.

    That number remains closers to 20,000 warheads, with about 10,000 for each side.

    Still so glib?

  4. you are all missing the real consequence of deterrence. I live in san jose the 1o largest city in the U.S. One nuclear sub on each coast, four or five MIRVed missiles all of it is gone. Since the 1960’s our economic and intellectual wealth has concentrated even more in these large cities making us more vulnerable than before. Twelve more bombers have a tactical or political value– we had 50 year old B52 bombers flying from Guam to Japan thru a Chinese ADIZ just to prove a point.

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