Russian Tu-22M3 Backfire Bombers Appear Over Syria And They Could Be There To Stay (Updated)

Recent imagery suggests the swing-wing bombers are operating for the first time from a Syrian base.

Tu-22M3 at Khmeimim
Russian Ministry of Defense Screencap

The emergence of photos and videos of Russian Tu-22M3 Backfire-C bombers apparently taken in Syria’s coastal Latakia province suggests that the aircraft are now operating, for the first time, from Moscow’s Khmeimim airbase outpost in that country. Earlier this year, The War Zone examined runway extension work at the base which would help accommodate the big swing-wing bombers, and you can read more about that here

The latest imagery, posted to Twitter as well as the Russian Telegram social media network, purportedly dates from today and shows a pair of Tu-22M3s — which are only operated by the Russian Aerospace Forces, or VKS. While the bombers are only seen in the air, and not on the ground at the base itself, the fact that at least some of the images show the landing gear extended points to the aircraft almost certainly operating from Khmeimim.

Russian Ministry of Defense

A VKS Tu-22M3 returns to its base at Shaykovka in December 2017 after a deployment in support of the Syrian campaign.

While the recent work at the base, including extension of one of the runways by around 1,000 feet, bringing it to a length of approximately 10,500 feet, would help support longer-term deployments of these large and frequently heavily laden aircraft, it remains possible that the Backfires are only making a fleeting visit to Syria.

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Satellite images, the most recent dated Decmber 14, 2020, showing extensions being added to both ends of the western runway at Khmeimim. 

That the Tu-22M3 has a role to play in Syria’s ongoing civil war is clear enough, since the bombers have been utilized in the conflict in the past. Their use in the conflict has been not insignificant, as part of Moscow’s efforts to prevent the collapse of the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad.

Between November 2015 and August 2018, Tu-22M3s completed 369 combat sorties over Syria, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense. For these, the bombers initially operated from Mozdok Air Base in North Ossetia, North Caucasus, the most southerly Russian airfield able to accommodate them.

For a period in August 2016, Tu-22M3s also flew bombing raids over Syria from Hamedan Air Base in Iran, but this arrangement quickly broke down and Iran withdrew permission for Russian access to the airfield.

AP

Tu-22M3 bombers at Hamadan Air Base in Iran in 2016.

While the Tu-22M3 is capable of carrying heavyweight guided air-to-surface missiles, during the Syrian campaign it has only employed freefall bombs, as far as is known. In fact, even advanced multirole fighters deployed to Syria by Russia have made use of mainly unguided ordnance in the conflict, with a predictable effect on overall accuracy. Compared to other combat aircraft at Khmeimim, however, the key advantage of the Tu-22M3 it its much larger payload — typically around 13,000 pounds of weapons, although a maximum of over 52,000 pounds can be lifted at the expense of a useful fuel load.

So far, Backfires engaged in Syrian combat missions have been noted dropping salvoes of 12 550-pounds bombs, and on rare occasions single 6,600-pound bomb, the heaviest in the inventory. During the hotter summer months, however, the payload is typically reduced to just 10 550-pound bombs or six 1,100-pound bombs.

Operating the bombers from Khmeimim would likely allow bomb loads to be increased, as well as allowing for a greater amount of time on station, since transit times would be considerably reduced. If required, the sortie rate could also be stepped up, but that would also be dependent on the number of aircraft deployed there and on maintenance cycles.

The deployment of Tu-22M3s to Syria would also provide a good opportunity to undertake trials of the upgraded Tu-22M3M version, providing this is the model that has been sent there.

The Tu-22M3M is a mid-life upgrade for the Cold War-era bomber and was first test-flown in December 2018. It incorporates various items of new equipment, including a more advanced radar, a digital flight control system, enhanced navigation and communication suites, plus a revised armament control system. The latter permits the use of new weaponry including the newer Kh-32 standoff missile.

Other changes include a glass cockpit, updated self-defense suite and other new avionics. The original inflight refueling probe, deleted to conform with START I (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) regulations, is also reinstated in the nose. It would not be the first time that Russia has taken the opportunity to test new combat aircraft in the Syrian theatre, having previously done the same with the Su-57 Felon new-generation fighter, for example.

Having bombers in Syria is not without its risks, however. Khmeimim has, in the past, had to content with drone attacks and other indirect fire weapons operated by anti-Assad forces. Between December 31, 2017 and the end of the first week of January 2018, the base was subjected to at least two mass drone attacks, that killed multiple personnel and damaged or destroyed a number of aircraft.

Should the bomber deployment prove successful, however, it might prompt Russia to send more, or other types of similar aircraft. The same base could also accommodate the Tu-95MS and Tu-160, both of which offer the ability to carry a range of subsonic land-attack cruise missiles that are absent from the Tu-22M3. 

Russian Ministry of Defense

Tu-22M3s drop freefall bombs over Syria on a previous deployment.

Beyond the use of these aircraft in the Syrian conflict, an established bomber outpost at Khmeimim would also provide Russia with the ability to project strategic airpower across the Mediterranean region, potentially much more important. It would be a means of challenging NATO on its southern flank, holding targets in Europe at risk from an entirely new southern vector, as well as providing better access into the Middle East and North Africa, for example in Libya, where Moscow also has military interests. It would also be in keeping with Russian efforts to expand the operating locations of its bombers more generally, including deployments to Venezuela, South Africa, and to an expanding network of airfields in the Arctic.

In the past, Russian media, including the defense ministry’s own channels, have disclosed the appearance of most new equipment once it has been deployed to Syria. With that in mind, we may expect to see official confirmation of the Tu-22M3 at Khmeimim, although only time will tell if this is to be a longer-term deployment, or a brief cameo appearance.

Update, May 25: As we expected, the Russian Ministry of Defense has now confirmed the arrival of the Tu-22M3s at Khmeimim, announcing that three examples have been deployed, but with no further details about the duration of the mission. According to a statement from the ministry, “Crews of the long-range bombers will acquire practical skills in practicing training tasks in new geographic areas during flights in the airspace over the Mediterranean Sea.” The statement also mentions the reconstruction work on the second runway at the airbase, which includes resurfacing and new lighting and communications equipment. “The length of the runway was also increased, which made it possible to expand the capabilities of the airfield to receive and service aircraft of various classes,” the statement adds. “After completing training tasks for the development of airspace in the maritime zone of the Mediterranean Sea, the long-range bombers will return to permanent airfields on the territory of the Russian Federation.” 

There remains a possibility that the timing of the bomber deployment is intended to coincide with the arrival of the Royal Navy’s Carrier Strike Group 21 (CSG21), a maritime task force brought together for the first operational deployment of the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. The carrier sailed from its homeport on May 22 and is due to enter the Mediterranean, from where it is planned that its embarked F-35B stealth fighters will conduct combat operations over the Middle East. During the Cold War, U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and cruise-missile-armed warships operating in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic were among the primary targets of Soviet Naval Aviation Tu-22Ms, but since 2011 the type has been exclusively operated by the Russian Aerospace Forces. 

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com