MOSCOW --- November 17, 2016 saw upgraded Russian Air Force (RusAF) Tupolev Tu-95MSM (NATO reporting name: Bear) strategic bombers, which took off from Engels AFB in the Saratov Region, attack the Russia-banned Islamic State (IS) and Jebhat al-Nusra terrorist groups in Syria.
The Russian Defense Ministry outlined the sortie in a statement, saying that the aircraft had released their air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) over the Mediterranean Sea. According to the Russian military, the Tu-95MSMs covered 11,000 km with two mid-air refuelings.
According to both the Russian Defense Ministry and open Internet sources monitoring RusAF operations in real time, the strike package comprising three missile-carrying bombers of the Tu-95MS family and three Ilyushin Il-78M (Midas) airborne tankers flew over the Barents and North seas, Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean. Having launched their ALCMs, the warplanes returned to their base in the Saratov Region via Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian airspace.
Russian Tu-95MS strategic bombers target ISIS & Al-Nusra in Syria with cruise missiles.(Russian MoD footage)
The fighter escort was provided to the RusAF’s Long-Range Aviation aircraft by Sukhoi Su-30SM (Flanker-C) and Su-35 (Flanker-E) multirole fighters operating out of Khmeimim air base in the Syrian province of Latakia. At least one of the fighter jets, serialed ‘04 Red’, was seen in the Russian Defense Ministry’s official video uploaded on YouTube.
The targets were "control centers, gun and ammunition dumps, bunched-up vehicles and weapon-making factories of the terrorists."
"The grids of all of the targets had been checked through and through and confirmed via several intelligence assets. The bombing damage assessment was conducted by unmanned aerial vehicles as well," the ministry emphasized.
In spite of the lack of an official Russian Defense Ministry news release, its YouTube video proves the fact of the baptism of fire of the upgraded Tu-95MSM strategic bomber. The version differs from the baseline model, the Tu-95MS, in being able to carry, inter alia, Kh-101 ALCMs on its twin underwing ejector racks - a total of eight weapons. For the first time, three Tu-95MSMs equipped with advanced underwing weapons stations for ALCMs were displayed on May 9, 2016, during the Victory Day Parade.
The upgrade of the Tu-22M3 (Backfire), Tu-95MS and Tu-160 (Blackjack) bombers was kicked off under the orders awarded to Tupolev (a subsidiary of the United Aircraft Corporation, UAC). In 2014, the Russian Aerospace Force took delivery of 10 modernized aircraft of the types. The upgraded Tu-95MS was re-designated Tu-95MSM. It is 49.13 m long with the 50.4-m wingspan. The bomber has a maximum speed of 830 km/h and a ceiling of 10,500 m.
The Tu-95MS is powered by four NK-12MP engines. Its maximum takeoff weight stands at 185 tons. According to US publication Military Balance, the RusAF has 62 Tu-95MS strategic bombers - 31 Tu-95MS-6 and 31 Tu-95MS-16. At the same time, according to former Long-Range Aviation Commander Anatoly Zhikharev, the number of operational Tu-95MS aircraft was driven to 43 in 2015.
According to open sources, only the Tu-95MS-16s are subject to upgrade, i.e. around 30 aircraft. The Tu-95MS features high upgradeability by means of advanced missiles and avionics. The upgrade pertains to its radio electronics and targeting and navigations systems that will allow employing advanced Kh-101 ALCMs. The upgrade is designed for extending the type’s service life until 2025, but the aircraft may well fly until the 2040s, according to experts. Open sources say that the upgrade of the Tu-95MS-16s to Tu-95MSM standard commenced in 22013. The RusAF received its first Tu-95MSM named Dubna in November 2015.
2015 saw Tu-95MS bombers on their first combat operation, when they were used during Russia’s military operation in Syria on November 17-20, 2015, striking the terrorists with Kh-555 (AS-15C Kent, or AS-X-22) cruise missiles.
Kh-101 missiles had been used in the Syrian operation before that, albeit by Tu-160 swing-wing bombers only. In all probability, Russian leadership decided to continue the trials of its latest smart weapons in a real shooting war. Sea-launched Kalibr missiles were fired for the first time by the Project 11356 (Admiral Grigorovich-class) Admiral Grigorovich frigate and P-800 Oniks antiship missiles by 3K55 Bastion (SSC-5 Stooge) mobile coastal defense missile systems against the IS and Jebhat al-Nusra in Syria on November 15.
Obviously, the ability of the Tu-95MSMs to use the cutting-edge Kh-101 cruise missile in an environment maximizing realism had to be tested. For this very reason, the bombers and tanker planes flew via the Northern and Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean, rather than following the shortest direct route through the Caspian. According to the video released by the Defense Ministry, at least one of the Tu-95MSMs, the one named after the Russian city of Vorkuta, carried only a pair of Kh-101s, though the type’s maximum Kh-101 payload accounts of eight weapons.
It is hard to say for sure why two missiles were carried instead of eight. Presumably, as many as eight ALCMs on the Tu-95MSM’s underwing stations would have reduced its range, which would have necessitated more Il-78M aerial refuelers to accompany the bombers. In addition, the RusAF needed to demonstrate the Tu-95MSM’s ability to conduct long-range missions, which prevented a heavier Kh-101 salvo from airspace over the Caspian. It is quite possible, however, that the mission just did not require that many sophisticated ALCMs.
According to open sources, the Kh-101 cruise missile’s warhead weighs 400 kg. The missile can carry the high-explosive, hard-target penetrator or cluster-type warhead. The Tu-160 bomber is fit for the internal carriage of 12 Kh-101s on two MKU-6-5 revolving launchers six ALCMS each. According to expert estimate, the range of the advanced missile may equal 5,000 km, cruising speed 700-720 km/h, maximum speed 970 km and endurance 10 hours. Probably, the new missile has the variable mission profile capability within a wide altitude bracket.
Experts with Jane’s believe the Kh-101’s circular error probable (CEP) is within 6 m. Russian military expert Victor Murakhovsky believes that "the missile relies on a combined guidance system comprising the inertial navigation system, electro-optical updates and other systems and its CEP does not exceed 5-7 m at any range, including the maximum one." The missile features a low radar signature, which makes it harder for the enemy to detect it. The Kh-101 is said to have entered service with the RusAF in 2013.