Russia’s Secretive Long-Range Bomber Operations Against Ukraine

Combat missions flown by Russia’s bomber fleet during the ongoing war in Ukraine have received very little coverage. Unlike its tactical combat jets and helicopters, Russia’s trio of bombers has operated, with a few exceptions, under a media blackout. But they have indeed been an active component of Russia’s combat operations. Here’s how.

On April 7, President Vladimir Putin awarded the 121st Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment (121 TBAP) in Engels the honorific title of ‘Guards,’ the most prestigious title for any Russian military unit. Engels is home to Russia’s only strategic bombers stationed in the European part of the country, the 121 TBAP flying the Tu-160 Blackjack, and the 184 TBAP with the Tu-95MS Bear-H. In the official reasoning, Putin wrote: “for mass heroism […] shown by the regiment’s personnel in combat operations.”

A Tu-95MS armed with Kh-101 cruise missiles, seen from the flight deck of another Tu-95MS, in February 2022. Russian Ministry of Defense

Putin did not refer directly to the actions in Ukraine, but the timing was certainly no coincidence. A few days earlier, during U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Poland on March 26, Russian strategic bombers launched cruise missiles against a military training ground in Yavoriv in western Ukraine, just 10 miles from the Polish border. The same base had already been struck by Russian air-launched cruise missiles two weeks earlier, on March 13, when Russian strategic bombers launched around 30 cruise missiles against it, most of which reportedly failed to reach their target.

“Mass heroism” sounds fairly overblown in relation to bomber crews that fired all their missiles against Ukraine from a considerable distance, risking nothing except remorse.

As The War Zone has examined on several occasions in the past, the biggest surprise of Moscow’s war against Ukraine is that Russia has proven unable to gain air dominance. The Russian suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) campaign has failed, which means that Russian military aircraft operate almost exclusively over territory controlled by their own troops. Aside from a few Kh-59 missile attacks by Su-34 Fullback strike aircraft or Su-35S Flanker fighters, air-launched strikes against targets deep in Ukraine are performed only by Russian long-range bomber aircraft. They use cruise missiles launched from over the territory of Russia or Belarus, or from over the Caspian Sea or the Sea of Azov.

Russia’s Long-Range Aviation branch, responsible for its three bomber types — the Tu-22M3 Backfire-C, Tu-95MS Bear-H, and Tu-160 Blackjack — attacks infrastructure in the central and western parts of Ukraine, including military equipment production and repair plants, strategic fuel supplies, airfields, railway facilities, etc. Russia is trying to prevent the supply of military equipment from Western countries, as well as sever the routes used for transporting equipment and materiel for Ukrainian troops fighting in the east of the country.

But the effectiveness of these measures has been very limited, so far. The problem for the Russians is that their long-range cruise missiles can only be used against large stationary targets with known coordinates, severely limiting their ability to interdict weapons shipments and prosecute many other target types. Aerial intelligence gathering that is critical to such operations is largely nonexistent in the western half of Ukraine, as well.

Strategic bombers with Kh-101 missiles

Russian Tu-95MS and Tu-160 strategic bombers have been involved in the latest conflict with Ukraine since day one. The only conventional armament now available to these bombers is the Kh-101 (known to NATO as the AS-23A Kodiak) cruise missile. The other options are the nuclear Kh-55SM and Kh-102 cruise missiles, which are fortunately beyond the scope of this article. In stark contrast to their U.S. equivalents, neither the Tu-95MS nor Tu-160 can carry any kind of conventional freefall ordnance.

Named Kaluga, this Tu-95MS is seen carrying four Kh-101 missiles in a photo published on May 10, 2022. Fighterbomber/Telegram

The Raduga Kh-101 missile weighs between 4,850 and 5,290 pounds and flies at a low altitude at subsonic speed for a distance of around 2,175 miles. The Kh-101’s guidance system combines inertial navigation, a satellite navigation receiver, radar terrain contour-matching (TERCOM), and electro-optical digital scene-matching area correlation (DSMAC) systems.

Kh-101s under a Tu-95MS, in July 2022. Note the low-observable design of these missiles, designed to reduce their radar cross-section. Russian Ministry of Defense

The Russians also used to have Kh-555 (AS-22 Kluge) cruise missiles available for the Tu-95MS and Tu-160. This was a conversion of older nuclear-armed Kh-55 (AS-15 Kent) cruise missiles into conventional versions. An unknown number of Kh-55s — around 40 according to the author’s estimates — were converted into Kh-555s in the mid-2000s. This stock had already been exhausted during the Russian operation in Syria when, in November 2015, Tu-95MS and Tu-160 bombers launched 35 Kh-555 missiles. Later, there was no information on their use in Syria. All available imagery from Ukraine also shows only Kh-101 missiles.

A Tu-95MS launches a Kh-101 cruise missile, during the Syrian campaign in the fall of 2017. Russian Ministry of Defense

Recently, the use of Kh-101 missiles in Ukraine has also become rarer, which may mean that their stocks are close to exhaustion and the Russians are saving these missiles for particularly important targets. According to the author’s calculations, there are fewer than 100 of the Kh-101 missiles left in stock, and their production rate does not exceed three to four per month.

A screenshot of a Kh-101 flying over Ukrainian territory. via author
The remains of a Kh-101 cruise missile that came down in Ukraine in March 2022. via author

Russian military aviation activities during Ukrainian Independence Day on August 24 were significant. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, the Russian Aerospace Forces conducted 200 missions that day, including 34 by Tu-95MS and Tu-22M3 bombers and around 90 by fixed-wing tactical aircraft. The others were flown by helicopters and special-purpose aircraft, the latter including A-50 Mainstay airborne early warning and Il-22 Coot-B electronic warfare aircraft. Two hundred daily missions were typical for Russian military aviation at the beginning of this war, but now the average is 60-70, so August 24 was exceptional. Each such mission meant the announcement of an air alert in one of the regions of Ukraine.

Two views of the 9E-2648 warhead from a Kh-101 that came down in Ukraine in March 2022. Ukrainian Ministry of Defense
Ukrainian Ministry of Defense

However, these 200 aircraft only launched eight missiles. These were eight Kh-22 (AS-4 Kitchen) standoff missiles released from Tu-22M3 bombers from the 52nd Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment based at Shaykovka in western Russia’s Kaluga Oblast. This suggests that the purpose of these missions was to spoil the Ukrainians’ holiday through air alerts, but that the forces required for a more meaningful strike were gone.

Similarly, on September 11, after the retreat of Russian troops from the Kharkiv area, the Russians struck the Ukrainian electrical grid in retaliation. Again, however, most targets were close to the Russian border. Objects deep in Ukraine, beyond the reach of tactical weapons, remained intact. According to a Ukrainian communiqué, the Russians fired six Kh-101 missiles that day from over the Caspian Sea, five of which were shot down by anti-aircraft defenses. They also fired Kalibr cruise missiles from ships in the Black Sea.

Tu-22M3s with Kh-22 and Kh-32 missiles

Tu-22M3 medium bombers joined the operation only on April 14, initially using just dumb bombs. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced that day that these bombers were being used to bomb the Azovstal plant in the encircled Mariupol. The bombing of Mariupol lasted for many consecutive days, until the beginning of May. The Tu-22M3s used 500kg (1,102-pound) demolition bombs. There have also been reports of their use of the enormous 3,000kg (6,614-pound) FAB-3000s, the heaviest bombs in the Russian arsenal, but there is no confirmation of this. The Tu-22M3 could cover Mariupol with salvos of freefall bombs because the town was already tightly encircled by Russian troops and the bombers did not have to worry about Ukrainian air defenses.

The Azovstal plant in Mariupol under bombardment by Tu-22M3 aircraft, on May 6, 2022:

For targets deep inside Ukraine, the Tu-22M3s attack using heavy Kh-22M, Kh-22N, or the newer Kh-32 supersonic anti-ship missiles. (Externally, these weapons are almost identical; the Kh-32 has a shorter radar seeker cone in the nose). On May 11, the first Russian video since this campaign began to be taken from the cockpit of a Tu-22M3 firing missiles, reportedly against Ukraine, appeared. You can read our original analysis on that here.

The remains of a Kh-22N missile, which came down on Ukrainian territory, in May 2022. Ukrainian Ministry of Defense

The Raduga Kh-22 (AS-4 Kitchen) missile is now exclusive to the Tu-22M3 bomber. It is a huge, 13,000-pound missile flying at a speed of Mach 3 during its cruise phase. When approaching a target, the missile dives, accelerating to a terminal speed of Mach 4.15. The range of the Kh-22 is up to 217 miles; the Kh-32 can fly twice as far.

The missiles have been most often fired against Ukraine from a distance of 93-155 miles from the target, being launched over the territory of Belarus or from the Sea of Azov. Normally, the Tu-22M3 carries a single Kh-22; two or even three missiles can be carried, but only at the expense of fuel, and the Tu-22M3 does not currently have an inflight refueling capability.

A Cold War-era Kh-22NA missile on display alongside a Tu-22M2 Backfire-B at the State Aviation Museum in Kyiv, Ukraine. Piotr Butowski

Airstrikes using Kh-22/Kh-32 missiles were fairly common in the second half of June, when, according to Ukrainian sources, Ukraine was hit by 200 such missiles (before that, since April, the Russians had fired several dozen of them). On June 26, 10 Tu-22M3s (in two groups, six in the morning and four in the evening), probably each with two missiles, launched their Kh-22s against Kyiv. The bombers operated over Belarusian territory, in the area of Mazyr and Petrykov, from where it is a distance of around 30 miles to the Ukrainian border and less than 124 miles to Kyiv. The target was probably the Artem factory producing air-launched and anti-tank missiles, but the missiles appear to have hit many civilian objects within a radius of several hundred yards.

The problem with the Kh-22 and, to a lesser extent, the Kh-32 missiles, is their low accuracy. These are anti-ship missiles and have active radar seekers designed to home in on an objective with a big radar signature. This is not a problem when attacking an aircraft carrier — it is a clearly distinctive target at sea. However, when firing such a missile over land, it is impossible to know whether it will hit the roof of an industrial plant or the roof of a shopping center, which happened on June 27 in Kremenchuk. On that occasion, the missile (probably a Kh-32) hit a shopping mall, causing many civilian casualties. Attacking targets located in urban areas with such missiles is clearly deliberate and is almost certain to cause civilian deaths and injuries.

The missile strike on the shopping center in Kremenchuk on June 27, 2022, which most likely involved a Kh-32:

The stocks of Kh-22 missiles remaining from the Soviet era are large, and the shelf life of these weapons is coming to an end. Cynically speaking, it is cheaper to fire them into Ukraine than to dispose of them. As of early September, the Kh-22 was the most widely used munition employed by Russian Long-Range Aviation in Ukraine. There are far fewer of the new Kh-32 missiles; their total stocks at the outbreak of the war likely amounted to approximately 100-150 units.

In a scene from early February, two Tu-22M3s take off from Shaykovka Air Base to perform a patrol flight over Belarus. Russian Ministry of Defense
Tu-22M3s are seen with Kh-22 or Kh-32 missiles ready to be loaded, at Shaykovka, in June 2022. Google Earth

MiG-31K/I Kinzhal’s combat debut

The newest aircraft in the Russian Long-Range Aviation inventory is the MiG-31 Foxhound heavy interceptor adapted to carry a single hypersonic ballistic missile. The MiG-31K (also known as MiG-31I) aircraft and the 9-S-7760 missile together form the 9-A-7760 Kinzhal (dagger) strike system. The first Kinzhal regiment was established in December 2021 in Savasleyka, 190 miles east of Moscow.

On March 18, 2022, a MiG-31 reportedly launched one of these hypersonic missiles against an ammunition depot in Delatyn in western Ukraine, 44 miles from the Romanian border. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced that the strike was made by a Kinzhal missile “from a distance of more than 1,000km [621 miles],” (that is, from over Russian territory), while the missile flight was said to have lasted “less than 10 minutes”, i.e. it flew at a speed of over 3,728mph. This was the first operational use of the Kinzhal system ever, although there remain questions about at least some of the Russian claims, especially as to the real nature of the target.

Two days later, the Russians reported that Kinzhal struck a fuel and materiel depot in Konstantinovka in southern Ukraine; the missile was reportedly launched “from the airspace over the territory of Crimea”, that is, a distance of 186-249 miles.

A crewmember prepares for a sortie in a MiG-31K/I armed with a Kinzhal ballistic missile, immediately prior to the Ukraine invasion, on February 19, 2022. Russian Ministry of Defense
The same MiG-31K/I taxies out for a mission. Russian Ministry of Defense

For the third time, on April 11, Kinzhal struck “a Ukrainian command post” in the village of Chasiv Yar in Donbas, just 20 miles from an area occupied by Russian troops. As of early September, Russia has not claimed to have used Kinzhal again. There was a Ukrainian announcement that Kinzhal was also used on August 7 to strike a military facility in the Vinnytsia region, but this is not confirmed.

Unlike other long-range air-launched weapons, which Russia rarely talks about, the Kinzhal has been heavily advertised. The Russian Ministry of Defense apparently publicizes each use of these missiles in Ukraine, as well as their deployments to Syria or the Baltic Sea. On August 21, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoygu said that Kinzhal was used three times in Ukraine and that “three times showed its brilliant characteristics, which no other similar missile in the world has”. If that is true, it begs the question of why this weapon has been used so rarely.

Kinzhal-capable MiG-31s and their missiles, circled, at Savasleyka Air Base in July 2022. Google Earth

In fact, Kinzhal is hardly a game-changer. Its capabilities do not differ significantly from those offered by the Tu-22M3 with the Kh-22/Kh-32. Of course, the Kinzhal missile flies twice as fast as the Kh-22 and is more difficult to shoot down, but in this war, it makes little difference – Ukrainian anti-aircraft weapons are similarly limited against both of them. Presumably, Kinzhal, derived from the Iskander short-range ballistic missile, is more accurate though. On the other hand, the warhead of the Kh-22 (almost 2,000 pounds) is almost as powerful as that of Kinzhal, although Kinzhal has a kinetic advantage.

Another view of the MiG-31K/I flight line in February 2022, with the nearest jet ready to depart with a Kinzhal missile. Russian Ministry of Defense

One possibility is that the use of the Kinzhal has been heavily publicized because it was Putin who announced its existence in 2018, and it has been something of a favorite weapon of the leader ever since. The fact that it is unique to Russia is also clearly a point of pride and has propaganda value.

It is not known how many of these missiles Russia has, although production started only recently. According to Ukrainian intelligence, the total stock of Kinzhals before the war did not exceed 35-40 missiles.

Dwindling inventory

At this point, the availability of weapons is probably the most important issue facing Russian Long-Range Aviation in the war with Ukraine. There may be many aircraft and crews, but the missile stock is shrinking quickly, and the possibilities of producing new weapons to replace them are limited.

The appearance of wreckage from Russian weapons in Ukraine has confirmed what was already known earlier: they contain many foreign electronic components. Such items were found, for example, in the guidance system (the SN-99 satellite navigation receiver) used by the Kh-101 missiles that fell on Ukrainian territory. The War Zone was among the first to break this story, which you can read here.

Electronics taken from the wreckage of a Kh-101 cruise missile found in Ukraine. Ukrainian Ministry of Defense
A computer processor retrieved from a Kh-101 in Ukraine. Ukrainian Ministry of Defense

If the Western embargo on the supply of dual-use electronics is effective, along with overarching international sanctions, it will essentially block the production of these kinds of high-tech weapons in Russia. However, enforcing such an embargo is by no means easy, because many of the components used are not very sophisticated and are fairly widely available. Recycled components and, of course, those that could be supplied by China remain wildcards, as well.

But that doesn’t change the reality that Russia has run its air-launched standoff weapons stockpile down and replacing it will be very problematic, especially in a timely manner. With that in mind, it’s quite possible that we will be seeing less, not more, participation of Russian Long-Range Aviation as the conflict grinds on.

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