Russian bombers resuming Cold War patrols
MOSCOW: Russian bombers have resumed Cold War-style long-haul missions to areas patrolled by NATO and the United States, top Russian generals said 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.
"Whenever we saw U.S. planes during our flights over the ocean, we greeted them," Androsov said. "On Wednesday, we renewed the tradition when our young pilots flew by Guam in two planes. We exchanged smiles with our counterparts who flew up from a U.S. carrier and returned home."
The flight to the Pacific island was part of a three-day exercise that saw Russian strategic bombers making 40 sorties and launching eight cruise missiles, said Androsov, who commands Russia's long-range bomber force.
The incident coincided with a weeklong exercise by the U.S. military off Guam involving more than 22,000 troops, dozens of ships and hundreds of aircraft. U.S. officials have said that the war games, which began Tuesday, were not connected in any way to world events or targeted at any country.
President Vladimir Putin has sought to make Russia more assertive. He has increased defense spending and sought to raise morale in the armed forces, which were starved of funding after 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, code-named Bear by NATO, is Russia's Cold War icon and may stay in service until 2040.
Ivan Safranchuk, Moscow office director of the Washington-based World Security Institute, said of Moscow's 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."
"It doesn't cost much to flex your muscles," Safranchuk said. He continued, "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."
The bombers give Russia the capability of making a nuclear strike, even if the nuclear arsenals on its own territory are wiped out.
During the Cold War, Soviet pilots played elaborate airborne games of cat and mouse with Western air forces.
Lieutenant General Igor Khvorov, the Russian Air Force 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," he said. "This is business as usual."
The generals said that under Putin, long-range aviation was no longer in need of fuel and 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 said that part of the reason for the increased funding 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 code-named 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 of the World Security Institute.
"Maintenance and training are not the most expensive budget items of modern armies. Purchases of new weapons really are," he said.