The Russian air force just pulled off one of the biggest and most complex heavy bomber missions in modern history—sending no fewer than 25 Backfire, Bear, and Blackjack bombers on a coordinated, long-range air raid against alleged ISIS forces in Syria.
The Tuesday mission, which launched under the cover of darkness from a base in Ossetia in southern Russia, signaled a significant escalation of Moscow’s air war in Syria—and heralded the rebirth of Russian heavy bomber squadrons that once had withered from a lack of funding.
Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russia’s general staff, announced the raid on Tuesday, calling it part of “a new plan [for] the air campaign.”
“During a massive airstrike today, 14 important ISIL targets were destroyed by 34 air-launched cruise missiles,” Gerasimov said, using an alternative acronym for the terror army. “The targets destroyed include command posts that were used to coordinate ISIL activities in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, munition and supply depots in the northwestern part of Syria.”
Idlib and Aleppo are not ISIS strongholds. Indeed, U.S.-backed rebels hold much of both provinces. Russia has maintained all along that its roughly six-week-old intervention in Syria is aimed at defeating ISIS, but in fact many Russian air and missile strikes have hit rebel groups that oppose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and ISIS.
Russian officials notified U.S. planners at a coalition headquarters in Qatar before the strike, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said. It was the first time the Russians and Americans have put into action an October agreement to coordinate their countries’ respective operations in Syria.
The raid came the same day Kremlin officials publicly announced that a “terrorist act” brought down Russian Metrojet 9268 last month over the Sinai Peninsula. ISIS has since taken credit for the attack.
The Russian Defense Ministry released a video depicting three types of Russian bombers arming, taking off, dropping munitions, and then returning to base, escorted along their flight paths by Su-27 fighters.
The swing-wing, jet-propelled Tu-22M Backfires apparently carried unguided “dumb” bombs. The video depicts airmen loading clusters of cruise missiles in the bomb bays of the propeller-driven Tu-95 Bears and the huge, swing-wing Tu-160 Blackjack jets, which at 177 feet long are the biggest combat planes ever built.
All three models of bomber can fly thousands of miles while hauling no less than 20 tons of weaponry. Only China and the United States possess similar heavy warplanes.
Launching 25 bombers on one mission is an impressive undertaking. Russia possesses just 70 Backfires, 58 Bears, and 13 Blackjacks. The 14 Backfires, six Bears, and five Blackjacks that reportedly struck Syria represent a significant portion of the overall fleet. The massive raid is evidence of improving readiness on the part of the Russian air force, which in the 1990s and early 2000s grounded most of its aircraft because it couldn’t afford to fuel them or pay their pilots.
By comparison, on any given day 57 of the U.S. Air Force’s 77 B-52s, 35 of its 60 B-1s, and nine of its 20 B-2 stealth bombers are even flyable, according to statistics from 2013.
And when they do fly, America’s bombers often sortie alone or in pairs, only rarely coming together in large numbers. Seven B-52s flew together to launch cruise missiles at Iraq in the early hours of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and a group of eight of the giant warplanes repeated the feat on the first day of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003.
In other words: This Russian attack was “shock and awe”—on steroids.
Russia’s bomber raid was certainly impressive, and has propaganda value in addition to bolstering Moscow’s operations in Syria. When 25 of the planet’s most powerful warplanes attack at the same time, it’s more than a mere air raid. It’s a statement to the whole world.