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Image courtesy of Alex Beltyukov

Russian Bombers in Iran: Misleading Operational Justification, Serious Geopolitical Significance

Justin Bronk
Commentary, 18 August 2016
Aerospace, Russia
Russia’s ability to deploy bombers in Iran for sorties in Syria has less operational significance than either Moscow or Tehran would have us believe. But the geopolitical impact is substantial, both for Russia’s claims to superpower status, and for Iran’s positioning as a pre-eminent regional power.

Six Russian Tupolev Tu-22M3 strategic bombers, known as ‘Backfires’ in the West, have now been deployed from the Hamedan Air Base in Iran against targets in Syria. Alongside these, an unknown number of powerful, modern Sukhoi Su-34 ‘Fullback’ fighter bombers are also conducting operations from bases in Iran, having previously been deployed from Latakia Air Base in Syria before being withdrawn by Russian President Vladimir Putin amid great publicity in March 2016.

The official reasons given for these deployments have been operational: Tu-22M bombers have previously had to fly round trips of up to 3,000 miles from their bases in Russia to bomb targets in Syria. Now, flying distance to their usual targets in and around Aleppo will be cut by up to 60%, theoretically allowing greater responsiveness and sortie rates. There are, however, problems with this explanation.

The Tu-22M was developed during the 1970s primarily as a maritime strike bomber which could attack US nuclear carrier battlegroups at long range with cruise missiles. However, since the end of the Cold War, this aircraft has performed the role of long-range conventional bombing with a hefty payload of unguided bombs. Over Syria, this has meant that the Tu-22M has been responsible for regular carpet bombing of besieged cities such as Aleppo, as well as other large targets such as military bases, where precision is not an important consideration. The effect on defenders’ morale of heavy bombing is certainly significant. Specific military positions are almost impossible to hit reliably from the standard Tu-22M3 bombing altitude of around 15,000 ft, and civilian casualties are extremely high.

In operational terms, basing Tu-22Ms at Hamedan in Iran offers the potential to cut at least 60% from the time needed to fly each combat mission over Syria, compared to the time taken to fly from Russian bases. However, while this will increase Russia’s potential capability to generate Tu-22M sorties over Syria, the effect is likely to be relatively modest, since sortie duration is only one of several factors limiting the number of sustained strikes that Russia’s Tu-22M fleet can generate.

Due to the often dire state of funding that the Russian bomber fleet has experienced since the Tu-22M was introduced into frontline service in the late 1970s, maintenance and quality- control standards have always been patchy, and the standard of crew training and experience is on average very low compared to US equivalents. Plagued by low serviceability as well as a small number of sufficiently qualified and current aircrew as well as old airframes needing a lot of maintenance, the Tu-22M is not an aircraft that delivers high sortie rates under even the best of circumstances.

It is also not clear whether Russia has invested or plans to invest in the large munitions stores, maintenance crew numbers and stores of spare parts that are required to operate the Tu-22M at any significant tempo for more than a few days. Without such investment – which would represent a long-term commitment to base aircraft in Iran – sortie rates over Syria might actually be lower for the bombers flying from Iran, with only limited support infrastructure, than they would have been for the same aircraft flying much longer missions as part of a fleet of almost 100 aircraft from established bases in Russia.

The much more modern and versatile Su-34 fighter bombers, which have also been deployed to Iran in unknown numbers, carry a smaller payload but can employ almost any air-to-ground weapon in Russia’s inventory, including precision-guided bombs and missiles for close air support of friendly ground forces. They are therefore a much more useful resource in most combat situations than Tu-22Ms and can also pose a latent threat to Western aircraft as they are a highly capable fighter aircraft. However, the Su-34 previously operated from Latakia in Syria and so will now experience longer transit times to targets in Syria than during its previous participation in the conflict.

So it is not the case that the deployment of Su-34s to Iran gives Russia substantial operational advantages over previous arrangements. But since Russia lost four advanced helicopter gunships to Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS) bombardments of an airfield in Eastern Homs in May 2016 and the Su-34 is Russia’s newest operational combat aircraft with significant propaganda value, basing them in Iran may be viewed by Moscow as a less risky option than their return to airfields in Syria.

Deployment of Russian bomber aircraft to Iran offers far more geopolitical than operational advantages to both nations. For Russia, it is a way to show that her Air Force can do what once was the sole preserve of the US Air Force: to deploy strategic bombers for combat missions to forward bases in allied countries. This is one of the pillars of US power-projection capabilities and Russia is showing that it can do the same, albeit on a much smaller scale and with far less capable aircraft. Equally, while regional US allies such as the United Arab Emirates gains significant status in the Middle East from having the bulk of US strategic combat power based at their airfields, Iran can now plausibly claim that it has its own ally with superpower pretentions basing strategic bombers on its territory.

Image courtesy of Alex Beltyukov

Author

Justin Bronk
Research Fellow, Airpower and Technology

Justin Bronk is a Research Fellow specialising in combat airpower and technology in the Military Sciences team at RUSI. He is also... read more

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