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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Why Isn’t Russia’s Bomber Fleet Attacking Ukraine in Mass?

Tu-160 Ukraine
Russian Tu-160 Bomber. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russian Bombers On the Sidelines in Ukraine? – Russia has one of the biggest bomber fleets in the world. There are an estimated 137 Tu-22M3 Backfire, Tu-95 Bear, and Tu-160 Blackjack bombers. These airplanes can carry cruise missiles, air-to-ground missiles, precision-guided bombs, and unguided bombs. This is enough to destroy numerous military targets in Ukraine, but it is not clear if these powerful airplanes are flying over the country and attacking or conducting stand-off missile launch operations from Russian air space.

Here is what we know at the moment when it comes to Russia’s use of its mighty bomber fleet and the weapons it could employ in combat against Ukraine:

Stand-off Missile Use Is the Name of the Game

This could be because the Russians have not achieved air superiority over Ukraine. But these bombers can fire stand-off missiles out of the reach of enemy air defense systems and fighter interceptors. The Russians have deployed  Tu-160s that launched Kh-101 cruise missiles in Syria beginning in 2015. The Tu-22M3 was also utilized to take out targets in Syria. Russian bombers flew over Belarus before the war in Ukraine.

Watch Out for Russian Cruise Missiles

The Kh-101 cruise missile is scary good. It has a 900-pound warhead and is accurate to a few dozen feet from targets. Its range is up to 3,000 miles and it flies low to avoid enemy radar. This cruise missile is nuclear-capable. Tu-95 propeller-driven bombers can also carry the Kh-101 cruise missile. The Tu-95 has been described as Russia’s missile truck and would likely stay in Russian air space for stand-off launches.

“Even the basic Kh-101 would allow the (Tu-160) Blackjack to remain deep within Russian air space and still be able to strike any target in Europe,” Douglas Barrie, an analyst for the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, told Forbes.

These bombers have the entirety of Ukraine within range. They can fly in Russian air space, fire missiles, land, re-arm, and do it again, according to defense writer David Axe.

Russian Bombers Reportedly Active During Initial Invasion

An unnamed U.S. defense official said that 75 Russian bombers fired cruise missiles and other types of air-to-ground missiles in the early days of the war. These sorties were targeted at Ukrainian command and control centers, radars, anti-aircraft systems, plus fuel and ammunition dumps.

Tu-95s Were Not Shy Before the War

Before the war in Ukraine, the Russians were brazen with their bombers, even flying two Tu-95s close to Norwegian air space in early February. Norwegian fighters had to scramble to intercept the flight. The United Kingdom had an experience with Russian bombers before the invasion as well. Four Tu-95s flew close to the UK on February 2 and British fighters had to intercept them and escort them away from the air space.

Russian Ground Forces Marking Targets for Bombers

Russian bombers are reportedly coordinating with ground forces for bomb damage assessment and identifying targets. Russian soldiers are attempting to mark priority targets in Kyiv with red paint to help guide bombers. However, since Russian cruise missiles are already radar and inertial-guided, this target painting is probably more for attack helicopters and low-flying fighters.

New Stand-off Tactics Are Becoming Standard Procedure

The Russian Air Force is likely to continue to go after Ukrainian surface-to-air missile systems with its bombers in order to achieve air superiority for its fighters. Meanwhile, the bombers will probably launch cruise missiles and other stand-off munitions from the safety of Russian air space out of range of the Ukrainian fighters and air defenses. This tactic is an important development in modern aerial combat. Bombers are increasingly used as stand-off missile trucks, and it appears the war in Ukraine will continue to have Russian bombers fly in Russian air space and attack from home. They will only be limited by the number of cruise missiles that Russia has in its arsenal.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.



  1. Eric-ji

    March 1, 2022 at 3:24 pm

    It’s not ‘in Mass’ like it was Massachusetts, it’s ‘en masse’ = don’t you hate autocorrect?

  2. Alex

    March 1, 2022 at 3:45 pm

    You have already been told hundreds of times that Russia is not going to kill tens and hundreds of thousands of civilians, as the United States did. A sign of strength is not to kill everyone in 10 minutes, a sign of strength is to clear the people of the killers who kill the Ukrainians and mock them. But you want more blood, don’t you? Therefore, the Slavs do not understand you.

  3. Chris Kyle

    March 1, 2022 at 4:52 pm

    Good to know – kill bad ! less kill not so bad ! kill killers who kill.
    up your meds vlad !

  4. BallGarage

    March 1, 2022 at 5:14 pm

    Alex: a sign of strength is not poisoning political opponents, or locking them in prison after you poison them. Or bringing your fears of invasion by NATO to the UN for resolution rather than waging a war of choice.

    So I guess it’s Putin who doesn’t exhibit signs of strength, huh?

  5. Bill in Houston

    March 1, 2022 at 6:22 pm

    As Eric-Ji said, “en masse” is correct.

    Has anyone thought that the Russkis might be having a problem keeping their more “sophisticated” bombers in the air, whether parts or personnel? Or maybe their vaunted missiles aren’t as good as claimed?

    It wouldn’t be the first time the Russians have bragged about their weapons, only to have them fail catastrophically. Remember the “supercavitating torpedo?” LOL

  6. Jacky

    March 2, 2022 at 8:25 am

    Mass bomber formations to attack ukraine ? Russia ain’t USA, the ruthless genghis.

    In nam, south Vietnamese villagers could tell a US b-52 mass air attack was taking place, somewhere on an unknown location, even if they didn’t sight any planes by just feeling the shaking of the ground.

    It was usually a massacre, though few, if any, objected.
    Known in military parlance as saturation bombing, the bombers had only one objective-wipe out an entire hamlet or settlement.

    No such horror in ukraine right now, fortunately.

  7. Jeepwonder

    March 2, 2022 at 9:01 am

    Why not send all your great ideas to Putin directly? I don’t understand why you want Russia to swallow Ukraine, how many farmers should die of starvation this time? That’s part of the history of Russia conquest of Ukraine.

  8. Alex

    March 2, 2022 at 10:16 am

    BallGarage: You have no idea who is in a Russian prison and who poisoned someone. NATO was created as a defensive organization. There are documentaries from Germany where NATO promised not to expand eastward. There is no USSR. There is Russia, not much less, but it exists. And NATO is already at the very doorstep, knocking on the door. Russia could not resist. They said that if the West does not get out, then Russia is ready for anything: for all sanctions and even for a nuclear war. Do you want to laugh? And I am sure that Russia is not joking. Get out of its borders! We in Europe want to live and not be victims because of your ambitions!

  9. tired

    March 2, 2022 at 10:26 am

    Putin doesn’t view Ukraine as a legitimate country…he views them as part of Russia, and the people as inherently Russian. The Russian military is observing some rules of engagement with regards to civilian targets and are generally refraining from engaging with their most destructive weapons platforms, with some exceptions. Everyone should refrain from assuming those same constraints would apply to non-Russian forces. I would assume that whatever rules of engagement they are operating under will become less restrictive the longer this fiasco goes on.

  10. wesley bruce

    March 2, 2022 at 7:53 pm

    There is evidence that Russia is not making full use of air reconnaissance either. The problem is that both forces are using the same vehicles, uniforms and camouflage. From the air you can’t tell friend from foe. Ukraine is also making a very limited use of air to ground assets. The Ukrainians also appear to have made effective use of decoys.
    I also suspect that there are experimental air to air picket drones in play. These would never be seen but can kill Russian air assets. These work like a SAM site but loiter at high altitude giving them a height, range and time on target advantage.
    It is also a possibility that airbase personnel in Russia have more access to social media and world news. They know Putin is stalled on the ground and losing politically, economically and diplomatically so are telling the Kremlin they are unready. This also may be why there are fuel and logistics problems. Defying Putin will get you shot. Forgetting to ship enough fuel keeps you stalled clear of the front line and out of the war crimes court but still able to fight defensively. Now that many Russian officers know that Ukraine will not welcome them with open-arms and that the Ukrainian leadership are not somehow resurrected NAZI’s many are sitting on the road to kyiv waiting for changes in Moscow.

  11. Alex

    March 3, 2022 at 9:28 pm

    As long as fools believe in propaganda, Russia is fully fulfilling its goals and objectives.

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