Defending the Borders: Two F-22 Raptors based at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, intercepted a pair of Russian Tu-95MS Bear strategic bombers on Nov. 22, 2007. (US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — The Russian Air Force is upgrading its long-range aircraft, making the decades-old planes more lethal amid increasing encounters near US airspace, a top US general responsible for defending the American and Canadian airspace said.
“They are much, much better than they ever were during the Cold War,” Gen. Charles Jacoby, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and US Northern Command, said in an interview.
“One of the things we have seen is that it’s increasingly sophisticated [and] increasingly capable,” he said.
US and NATO aircraft have been intercepting Tu-95 Bear, Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-22 Backfire strategic bombers and numerous fighter aircraft since 2007 when the Russian Air Force resumed long-range aviation missions, which had stopped at the end of the Cold War.
“We’ve seen it go up and down a little bit, but steadily increase over the intervening seven years,” Jacoby said of the pace of the flights. “A lot of it depends on their exercise cycle. Sometimes it depends on what’s going on in the world.”
The intercepts typically take place near Alaska and down the western coast of Canada and the continental US. In Europe, they typically occur over the Baltic and North seas.
Since the middle of the past decade, the Russia Air Force has been modernizing its bomber aircraft and long-range missiles, according to Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
The Russians had a road map to upgrade their long-range aviation fleet in the 1980s to include avionics, radar and weapons, but that fell by the wayside when the Cold War ended in 1991, he said.
“Over the past few years, we’ve started to see at least some of that planned update was being implemented,” Barrie said.
The Russians have talked about the importance of making system improvements, even if they just modernized one or two aircraft a year, he said.
There have been upgrades to cruise missiles, including a conventional version of the nuclear Kh-55. Another project long talked about is upgrading the Kh-22 anti-ship missile. Within the last year, photos of a Russian test aircraft carrying bright red missiles with a new panel under the nose are believed to be an upgraded Kh-22, Barrie said.
“You’re seeing a range of systems that they’ve long talked about associated with long-range aviation actually now beginning to come into service and fielded,” he said.
Russia also has aspirations of fielding a new bomber aircraft toward the middle the 2020s, Barrie said, calling the operational goal “pretty optimistic.”
“In the Russian long-range aviation, you see a similar expenditure of resources in order to improve their capability that you see across the array of their capabilities from conventional to special to strategic forces,” Jacoby said.
The US had been working to expand military partnering opportunities with Russia in recent years, but exercises have been put on hold following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in February. Even before this year’s incidents in Ukraine, Russia’s unannounced long-range aviation flights had continued.
“What we’ve done is very matter of factly, and calmly maintained our deterrent posture, which demonstrates to them that we have the capability and intention of defending our airspace and at the same time looking for opportunities to cooperate on them with other things,” Jacoby said. ■