As the Russian Airforce is deploying its TU-22M3 ‘Backfire’ aircraft into the recently incorporated area that is Crimea, there are several things changing for the NATO and other military forces in the region. While the political situation has everything to do with these being added to the might of the Russian air and sea fleet over there, the relevance to the whole situation is not that important at all. The idea behind this is to show how the Russian military, albeit strapped for cash in more ways than one since the Soviet Union took a nose dive, does have more than capable military hardware to mess up plans for United States Navy, let alone some other, smaller forces around the world that are part of NATO for example.
What the TU-22M deployment means
The TU-22M was part of Russia’s quest for a strategic bomber, capable of carrying more than enough firepower to make any military or navy cringe. This swept-wing strategic bomber might look rugged and rather simplistic in shape (compared to modern day western bombers), but this supersonic beast has all the firepower to mess up any navy captain’s day in a hurry.
The Tupolev Tu-22M (Russian: Туполев Ту-22М; NATO reporting name: Backfire) is a supersonic, variable-sweep wing, long-range strategic and maritime strike bomber developed by the Tupolev Design Bureau. Significant numbers remain in service with the Russian Air Force, and as of 2014 more than 100 Tu-22M are in use. Several are now modernized into the TU-22M3 version, allowing for all sorts of goodies like upgraded avionics, Shompol side looking airborne radar and other ELINT (electronic intelligence) equipment. Just what the doctor ordered, specially in today’s naval warfare: ELINT
Stick to the skies
The title says it all: the Russian airforce and navy never really bothered with countering United States Navy in carrier might. Simply, there was no reason to do that. On the other hand, they had more than enough firepower to protect themselves from any and every carrier strike group out there: land based TU-22M airplanes, SLAVA class missile cruisers and other, preferably missile equipped vessels (above and beyond the surface) like the Kirov class battlecruiser or the Akula class submarines. The main idea behind this was to use their supersonic and hypersonic missiles, but also cruise missiles, all in the idea to destroy a U.S. naval carrier and eventually (after the carrier destruction, when the air power is defeated) the rest of the support group as well.
The TU-22M was well countered by the usage of the F-14 Tomcat air wings, found on the aircraft carriers for the duration of the cold war, providing air cover for the fleet ships overall. These, with enough range and the Phoenix missile, could engage the Mach 1.6 capable strike groups of the said plane with a great deal of effect at distance that allowed to carrier group to stay safe entirely. The Tomcat is (sadly) long gone from the carriers. Replaced by the capable (albeit not in the same way realistically) F/A 18 Hornet for the defense and attack capabilities.
This means that the carrier groups, even though shielded by the AEGIS on board navy ships, still lacks the stand-off defense capability, offered by the F-14 Tomcat and the above mentioned Phoenix missile. Anything carried by the F/A 18 Hornet, in terms of air-to-air missiles, cannot combat these air squadrons before they launch their deadly contents on the groups. This, when the carrier attack group discovered the incoming bogies of any type, could engage these at distance, thanks to the missile available, projected range and overall, with greater efficiency as well.
The logic stands, where the TU-22M would dash along the Russian borders, achieve its top speed, launch its BVR missiles at the carriers, then scoot back to safety of the Russian airforce’s anti-air and other protection capabilities that would grant it safety after the attack happened. While the carrier or any other navy cluster of vessels does have anti-aircraft capabilities, deploying a swarm of either one of the anti-ship stuff found in Russian inventory would be a tough pill to swallow for any CIWS or other means of defense within the ships present.
Flight of the Phoenix
There’s one lethal counter to the TU-22M: the AIM-54 Phoenix. The AIM-54 Phoenix is a radar-guided, long-range air-to-air missile (AAM), carried in clusters of up to six missiles on the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, its only launch platform. With several guidance modes, the Phoenix is a worthy opponent and a classy match for Russia’s strategic bomber force – primarily the TU-22M and TU-160 airplanes then. The Phoenix achieves its longest range by using mid-course updates from the F-14A/B AWG-9 radar (APG-71 radar in the F-14D) as it climbs to cruise between 80,000 ft (24,000 m) and 100,000 ft (30,000 m) at close to Mach 5. The Phoenix uses this high altitude to gain gravitational potential energy, which is later converted into kinetic energy as the missile dives at high velocity towards its target. At around 11 miles (18 km) from the target, the missile activates its own radar to provide terminal guidance.
The minimum engagement range (the minimal distance for the missile to hit the target efficiently) for the Phoenix is around 2 nautical miles (3.7 km) and active homing would initiate upon launch. With an operational range of up to 190 kilometers, this would prove to be a better fit to target combat aircraft coming in from Crimean air bases.
Denial of the seas
How is this possible? The Russians, as stated earlier, always liked to counter the US Navy and its carrier forces with anti ship missiles. With the TU-22M, there are two significant aircraft based anti-ship missiles used.
These are the fastest anti-ship missile in service today, the Kh-15, NATO name ‘Kickback’ which can plow in to an altitude of about 40,000 m (130,000 ft) and then dives in on the target, accelerating to a speed of about Mach 5, which makes it the fastest aircraft-launched missile to date. Some believe that even without it’s high-explosive contents it would still do a lot of damage to the ships with kinetic energy alone. With a 300 kilometer operational range, there isn’t anything the current air wing airplanes found on the US Navy carriers can throw at them, before they launch their missiles – when you count in the distance to target seen there.
The second one is the The Raduga Kh-22, NATO name ‘Kitchen’ that is a cruise missile, a ship destroying thingie that flies in at mach 4.6 to its target.
The Kh-22 uses an Isayev liquid-fuel rocket engine, fueled with TG-02 (Tonka-250) and IRFNA (inhibited red fuming nitric acid), giving it a maximum speed of Mach 4.6 and a range of up to 600 km (320 nmi). It can be launched in either high-altitude or low-altitude mode. Both modes can be used in a swarm type of an event, allowing several TU-22M bombers to launch their missiles in various modes and overwhelming a possible target. In high-altitude mode, it climbs to an altitude of 27,000 m (89,000 ft) and makes a high-speed dive into the target, with a terminal speed of about Mach 4.6. In low-altitude mode, it climbs to 12,000 m (39,000 ft) and makes a shallow dive at about Mach 3.5, making the final approach at an altitude under 500 m (1,600 ft).
The missile is guided by a gyro-stabilized autopilot in conjunction with a radio altimeter. With, let’s say six of the TU-22M’s attacking the particular navy group, this would mean that each carries four of these, totaling 24 missiles headed in various configurations, probably overwhelming any CIWS it encounters. if both the high-altitude and low-altitude modes are used, the ships and their defenses might prove to be overmatched for the swarm of missiles headed into their hulls that way.
This means that, with swarms of TU-22M’s hurdling at 1.6 mach, unleashing either the long range or short range anti-ship missiles, any and every carrier battlegroup would be pressed to combat these attacks. In other words regarding this, that the current Black Sea deployment from NATO, consisting of the Standing NATO Maritime Group Two (SNGM2) vessels the flagship USS Vicksburg (CG 69), HMCS Fredericton (FFH 337), TCG Turgutreis (F 241), FGS Spessart (A 1442), ITS Aliseo (F 574) and ROS Regina Maria (F 222), might be too little too late to combat Russia’s power over there. With the probable Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines lurking around, all armed with similar destructive means, the overall firepower the
Soviets Russians are capable of launching at any NATO task group – is impressive.
In a way, the Black Sea security situation changed quite a bit with the introduction of these weapon systems, entirely changing the possibilities of any country, even the United States to engage Russian targets in that area. With the geographical situation making the Black Sea Russia’s own little pond, these airplanes, together with the naval might of the Black Sea fleet together with these weapon impacting the strategic relations, might provide the naysayers with the final shut up about the Russian military power alltogether. At least in this aspect.