MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s strategic bombers have resumed Cold War-style long-haul missions to areas patrolled by NATO and the United States, top generals said on Thursday.
A Russian bomber flew over a U.S. naval base on the Pacific island of Guam on Wednesday and “exchanged smiles” with U.S. pilots who had scrambled to track it, said Major-General Pavel Androsov, head of long-range aviation in the Russian air force.
“It has always been the tradition of our long-range aviation to fly far into the ocean, to meet (U.S.) aircraft carriers and greet (U.S. pilots) visually,” Androsov told a news conference.
“Yesterday we revived this tradition, and two of our young crews paid a visit to the area of the (U.S. Pacific Naval Activities) base of Guam,” he said.
President Vladimir Putin has sought to make Russia more assertive in the world. Putin has boosted defence spending and sought to raise morale in the armed forces, which were starved of funding following the fall of the Soviet Union.
Androsov said the sortie by the two turboprop Tu-95MS bombers, from a base near Blagoveshchensk in the Far East, had lasted for 13 hours. The Tu-95, codenamed “Bear” by NATO, is Russia’s Cold War icon and may stay in service until 2040.
“I think the result was good. We met our colleagues — fighter jet pilots from (U.S.) aircraft carriers. We exchanged smiles and returned home,” Androsov said.
Ivan Safranchuk, Moscow office director of the Washington-based World Security Institute, said he saw nothing extraordinary in Moscow sending its bombers around the globe.
“This practice as such never stopped, it was only scaled down because there was less cash available for that,” he said.
“It doesn’t cost much to flex your muscles … You can burn fuel flying over your own land or you can do it flying somewhere like Guam, in which case political dividends will be higher.”
COLD WAR CAT-AND-MOUSE
The bombers give Russia the capability of launching a devastating nuclear strike even if the nuclear arsenals on its own territory are wiped out.
During the Cold War, they played elaborate airborne games of cat-and-mouse with Western air forces.
Lieutenant-General Igor Khvorov, air forces chief of staff, said the West would have to come to terms with Russia asserting its geopolitical presence. “But I don’t see anything unusual, this is business as usual,” he said.
The generals said under Putin long-range aviation was no longer in need of fuel, enjoyed better maintenance and much higher wages, a far cry from the 1990s when many pilots were practically grounded because there was no money to buy fuel.
The generals quipped that part of the funding boost was thanks to a five-hour sortie Putin once flew as part of a crew on a supersonic Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bomber, known as the “White Swan” in Russia and codenamed “Blackjack” by NATO.
The current state of Russia’s economy, which is booming for the eighth year in a row, has allowed Russia to finance such flights, said Safranchuk from the World Security Institute.
“Maintenance and training are not the most expensive budget items of modern armies. Purchases of new weapons really are.”