There’s no bomber quite like a Backfire. In many ways, Russia’s Tu-22M3 is a Cold War throwback. An intermediate-range, variable-geometry machine, the Tupolev design really gave NATO planners headaches in the 1970s and ’80s.
If the Cold War had turned hot, Tu-22Ms would have attacked high-profile targets including American aircraft carrier battle groups in the Mediterranean and Atlantic. The bombers also would have struck European ports and key airfields, with the aim of severing supply routes to the U.S.
Today, the Backfire is the only supersonic bomber in its class. And until quite recently, the outwardly archaic warplane seemed likely to fade away. However, with tensions ratcheting up in the Black Sea and Baltic regions, the Tu-22M3 has suddenly become a whole lot more relevant.
While its appearance in the early 1970s led to considerable alarm in the West, the aircraft dubbed “Backfire” by NATO was always something of a compromise. The Tu-22M designation was a political measure designed to secure funding, by suggesting it was a simple upgrade of the previous-generation Tu-22.
The same shortcut meant that it had to retain the radar and rather troublesome missile armament of its predecessor. Early versions struggled to achieve the required range and speed requirements.
After Tupolev finally perfected the Tu-22M, the bomber fell afoul of the START I nuclear treaty. START I forced Moscow to delete the bomber’s in-flight refueling capability—and, with it, much of the plane’s operational relevance.
START I also limited the total number of Tu-22Ms that Moscow could deploy, meaning that veteran Tu-16 and Tu-22 bombers had to soldier on in naval service.
The Russians have been understandably cagey about the precise capabilities of the Tu-22M3. However, we know it has a dash speed of 2,300 kilometers per hour and a combat radius of 2,200 kilometers when carrying armament and flying a high-altitude, partially-supersonic profile.
When the Russians probe North America’s defenses off the coast of Alaska or even California, they usually send turboprop Tu-95MS and jet-propelled Tu-160 heavy bombers, which with their aerial refueling abilities are truly able to circle the globe.
With no provision of its own for in-flight refueling, the Tu-22M can operate only around Russia’s immediate sphere of influence. Tu-22M3s fought in the campaigns in Chechnya and Georgia. The Georgians shot one down in 2008—the type’s first combat loss.
Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea, the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine and increased saber-rattling in the Baltic have compelled NATO to reinforce its frontier. It’s in this dangerous scenario that the Tu-22M3 now finds itself.
When Russian news agency RIA Novosti announced plans for a major military exercise in the Baltic—timed to coincide with NATO’s Saber Strike and BALTOPS maneuvers in the same area—the missile-carrying Backfire was the centerpiece. “We have completed the redeployment of troops in the designated areas,” a Russian defense ministry spokesperson said on June 12. “Tu-22M3 long-range bombers are ready to perform air patrol training in the region.”
Focusing on an exercise area in and around Russia’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, the joint exercises involve the local Baltic Fleet as well as army airborne and air force units under the commander of Russia’s Western Military District.
Su-27 fighters, Su-34 attack planes, Su-24MR reconnaissance aircraft, A-50 early warning platforms, Mi-24 assault helicopters and Il-76 transports are also participating alongside the Tu-22Ms.
Not coincidentally, the same Novosti report also states that the defense ministry expects to receive “at least 10” modernized and refurbished Tu-22M3s before the end of 2014. Moscow is boosting its increasingly busy medium bomber force.
In a report in the current issue of Combat Aircraft magazine, Russian aerospace expert Piotr Butowski reveals interesting details of Moscow’s plans for the Tu-22M3.
Russia built more than 500 Tu-22Ms of all versions over the decades, but only seven squadrons—each with a nominal strength of 10 aircraft—remain in service at three bases. Belaya in southeastern Siberia, Shaykovka southwest of Moscow and Ryazan southeast of Moscow.
The latter serves as the training unit for the bomber.
Analyzing satellite imagery, Butowski concludes that there are 28 aircraft at Shaykovka, 40 at Belaya and 10 at Ryazan. However, not all of these aircraft are operational. The actual number of operational Tu-22M3s is probably closer to 65 or 70.
To be clear—like many of the Russian air force’s mid-life upgrade initiatives, the effort to revamp the Tu-22M3 has run into repeated delays and revisions. The program has languished since the early 1990s and has yet to produce a single upgraded aircraft.
In early 2012, the Kremlin outlined plans to upgrade around 30 bombers to the new Tu-22M3M standard by 2020. In February 2013, after little movement, Russia’s new defense minister Sergei Shoygu tried to jumpstart the program.
The plan to deliver 10 or more Tu-22M3M aircraft before the end of 2014 seems ambitious, to say the least. Currently, Russia is refurbishing—not upgrading—a maximum of four to six aircraft annually.
Moscow clearly aims to retain the bomber for many more years, however. Russia just needs the resources and technical capacity to match its will.
Just how capable will the new Tu-22M3M be? That depends on a number of factors. Chiefly, whether Russia pursues the top-of-the-range upgrade or opts for a cut-price option. The latter wouldn’t be a surprise—Russia has already reduced upgrades for the Su-24 attack aircraft and Su-27 fighter.
Whatever shape it takes, the Tu-22M3M should get a new primary weapon. The Raduga Kh-32 missile is a successor to the Kh-22—NATO codename AS-4 Kitchen—that has been in service since the 1960s. The Kh-32 reportedly boasts twice the range of the Kh-22, which can hit a ship target at 350 kilometers.
While it remains a relatively primitive, liquid-fuel missile, the Kh-22 possesses an impressive terminal speed in excess of Mach 4, making it a serious threat to even the most advanced air-defense systems. The Kh-22 is compatible with nuclear and conventional warheads.
Kh-32s have already been seen on a Backfire at the Zhukovsky flight test center.
Beside the Kh-32, the Tu-22M3M might also carry the subsonic Kh-SD missile and the supersonic Kh-MT, both still under development. The new munitions offer ranges of up to 2,000 and 1,000 kilometers, respectively, and combine stealthy airframes with modern guidance systems and warheads.
Intriguingly, Butowski also notes that Russia is testing a hypersonic research vehicle, using the Tu-22M3 as a launch aircraft. Such technology could provide the basis for a new, hypersonic cruise missile.
Other provisions of the Tu-22M3M upgrade include a new Novella-45 radar. Upgraded Tu-95MS and Tu-160 strategic bombers could get similar sensors.
Complicating matters is the presence of a more modest, cheaper upgrade package that the Gefest company recently pitched. This is based on the firm’s upgrade for the Su-24, and essentially adds digital avionics for a precision-bombing capability.
Beginning in 2009, a number of Tu-22M3s received the modifications, yielding impressive results. Should the full-scale Tu-22M3M program falter, Gefest will be well placed to continue its work.
Clearly, the Russian air force sees the continued relevance of the Tu-22M3. Regardless of its combat potential, it carries considerable political weight. Once Russia claimed Crimea, one of its first military projects on the peninsula was to overhaul the runways at Gvardeyskoye air base, with a view to deploying Backfires there from 2016.
Even in Tu-22M3M form, however, the Backfire upgrade is relatively modest. Combined with the fact that only around half the fleet is getting the upgrades, this is a strong indicator of Tupolev’s main priority—the all-new PAK DA heavy bomber.
This secretive project could finally yield a successor to the Tu-95MS, Tu-160 and Tu-22M3. Until that happens, however, the Backfire seems set to play a important role alongside its bigger brothers in Russia’s assertive new strategy.