Russia’s Ageing Bomber Could Sling Mach 10 Missiles
Russia’s oldest bombers could become platforms for firing hypersonic missiles, allowing Moscow to strike targets from long range while slipping under anti-missile radars.
According to a report in Sputnik News, the Tu-22M3 Backfire could be modified to carry four Kh-47M2 “Kinzhal” air-launched ballistic missiles. Introduced in 1978, the Backfire is a large, swing-wing nuclear-capable supersonic bomber with a combat range of approximately 3,400 miles. Most of Russia’s Backfires are 30 years old or older and were recently refitted with the new SVP-24 Gefest digital sighting and navigation system.
The Kinzhal, first revealed last year, is an Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile. The weapon was originally designed for launch from the ground, but was recently modified into an air-launched ballistic missile. Kinzhal reportedly has a range of 1,200 miles, can attack ground or naval targets, and packs a nuclear or conventional high explosive warhead.
Iskander-M is vulnerable to anti-ballistic missile interceptors such as the U.S. THAAD system. At the same time, the ageing Backfire bomber is vulnerable against modern conventional air defenses. But putting the two together results in a new and interesting combination—and a better weapons system capable of penetrating modern defenses.
The Backfire could carry Kinzhals farther than their own solid fuel rocket engines can take them, increasing the total system range to 4,600 miles. Kinzhal, launched from the atmosphere, would fly below ballistic missile defenses, pitting it instead against traditional air defenses that would have a difficult time engaging a Mach 10 missile.
The Sputnik report is thinly sourced, the story attributed to an unnamed source in the Russian defense industry. It’s also important to remember that Sputnik is Russian state media and is used to release propaganda into the wider global media.
That said, the story is plausible. Russia’s defense spending is declining as the country feels the pinch of Western-imposed sanctions after the 2014 annexation of the Crimea and declining commodity prices. The pairing of the two weapons would have cost-effective benefits and give the Russian Aerospace Forces new capabilities—if it works properly. Russia already has inventories of Backfire bombers and Iskander missiles, and combining the two extends the usefulness of the Backfires in a time when very little information is coming out about Russia’s PAK-DA stealth bomber program.