Russia to add in-air refueling upgrade to Backfire bombers in violation of INF treaty

The Russian air force will add in-air refueling capabilities to at least some of its more than 100 Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers in the coming months, according to a report in Russian media.

A translation of an Interfax news report quoted “an informed source” who said, “The new Tu-22M3M bombers will be equipped with airborne refueling rods. After the signing of the [Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces] treaty with the United States on Strategic Arms Reduction (SALT-2) in 1979, these rods were removed from combat aircraft and were not installed on new ones.”

The source Interfax quoted said that in-flight refueling equipment has already been installed on “the first prototype of the Tu-22M3M” to increase its range. The upgrade was reportedly completed on 16 August.

All bombers scheduled to be upgraded will be fitted with in-flight refueling. Interfax quoted Russian air force officials as saying Moscow plans to upgrade 30 bombers by 2020.

“The installation of new equipment for fueling will significantly increase the combat radius of the use of the Tu-22M3M, it’s range,” the source said, according to Google Translate. “It will be comparable to the strategic missile carriers,” said the source, a reference to Russia’s existing strategic bomber fleet.

The current range of Tu-22M3’s is about 6,000 km or about 3,728 miles. Russian Tu-160 Blackjack bombers have a range of about 7,642 miles, while the venerable Tu-95s have a similar range.

Russia has also been upgrading the Tu-160M2.

Last month Sergei Kobylash, commander of Russia’s long-range aviation, told Interfax that the ‘deep modernization’ program for the Tu-22M3Ms are aimed at increasing both speed and range. “We will install modernized engines on these planes, which, accordingly, are more economical and will increase both the range and speed and improve performance,” he said, according to Interfax.

Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov said on March 28 that Russia would completely overhaul all of its Tu-160s by 2030.

Russia also began flying Tu-160s in the Arctic over the summer, operating just 500 miles from Alaska. It’s estimated that Russia has about 15-16 Tu-160s remaining after an initial Cold War (1982-1987) run of building 25 of the planes.

Analysis: The Russians continue to deny they are in violation of the INF Treaty, but if they’re indeed upgrading Tu-22s with in-flight refueling, this is another way they’re doing it in addition to building and deploying intermediate-range nukes on Russian soil.

As part of the original treaty, the U.S. insisted that Russia remove the in-flight refueling capability from Tu-22s, making them less of a strategic asset. Adding it again means that they will have to be counted as such, under the INF and the New START Treaty, which expires in 2021.

On many fronts, the U.S. and Russia are increasingly at loggerheads. In Europe, of course, but also in the Arctic, North Atlantic, and even in the Middle East, both are engaged in competition not seen since the Cold War. 

Ongoing violations of existing treaties, which admittedly were signed with a country that no longer exists (the USSR), mean that neither side feels restrained by them any longer, despite their public rhetoric. In addition to Russia’s moves, the U.S. has “factually abandoned” the treaty, according to President Putin, by building what is essentially a dual-use base in Romania that is capable of launching missile defense and intermediate-range offensive missiles (Aegis ashore).

Putin has deployed the 9M729 Novator land-based cruise missile (code-named the SSC-8 by NATO), which the Russian military insists has a range of less than 500 km (about 310 miles), but NATO says the missile has a range greater than that, which puts it in violation of INF.

The Jamestown Foundation characterized the situation this way: “The two sides seem to be on a collision course. The Russian military appears to be intensifying the standoff with the West along various fronts, balancing on the brink of an actual confrontation. The INF may be collapsing, and the present New START arms control treaty is also under threat.”



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