On Sep. 9, 2008 three Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack bombers took off from Engels-2 AB and headed north, “going around the corner” (in Russian Air Force slang this means skirting Northern Europe and heading west across the Atlantic Ocean).
Developed as the answer to the American B-1, the Tupolev Tu-160 (NATO reporting name: Blackjack) was the Soviet Union’s most potent strategic bomber. Several project versions were rejected, and a highly controversial contest involving some of the Soviet Union’s top-class aircraft design companies took place before the Tu-160 variable-geometry bomber reached the hardware stage. Its design made use of many advanced features not used previously on Soviet bombers.
As told by Yefim Gordon & Dmitriy Komissarov in their book Tupolev Tu-160, Soviet Strike Force Spearhead, until 2008, the Blackjack’s sole visit abroad had been the appearance of Tu-160 f/n 4-01 at the 1995 Paris Air Show in Tu-160SK demonstrator guise. In 2008, however, Russian Air Force Tu-160s made an unprecedented trip abroad, and not just anywhere; the flight took them all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to Venezuela on a goodwill visit. On Sep. 9, three Tu-160s — “07 Red” Aleksandr Molodchiy, “10 Red” Nikolay Kuznetsov and “11 Red” Vasiliy Sen’ ko — took off from Engels-2 AB and headed north, “going around the corner” (in Russian Air Force slang this means skirting Northern Europe and heading west across the Atlantic Ocean). Their route lay over the international waters of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, taking them towards the South American continent. In the course of the flight the Tu-160 group was twice escorted by NATO fighters. First, a pair of Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons put in an appearance when the bombers were over the Norwegian Sea; then in the vicinity of Iceland a USAF F-16C scrambled from Keflavik AFB. The NATO fighters did not undertake any dangerous closing on the Russian aircraft. In accordance with the flight plan, only two missile carriers were to land on the South American continent, the third one was to make a U-turn and return to base. This explains the confusion in some media reports which at first reported this, now that composition of the “pair” of the Russian missile-carriers, mentioning a further aircraft which was not involved (“08 Red” Aleksandr Golovanov). Fact is, the Russian media had not been informed of the fact that three aircraft were actually sent on that mission!
On Sep. 10, Tu-160s “07 Red” and “11 Red” arrived at El Libertador airbase near Caracas, Venezuela after a 13-hour non-stop flight. The former aircraft was captained by 121st GVTBAP deputy CO, Pilot 1st Class Lt.-Col. Andrey V. Senchurov, while the other bomber was captained by deputy Commander of the DA Maj.-Gen. Aleksandr I. Afinogentov. Tu-160 “10 Red” returned to Engels. There were no nuclear warheads on board either aircraft. A Russian Air Force official, Lt.-Col. Vladimir V. Drik, pointed out that never before had strategic aircraft approached the equator so close (about 400 km/250 miles were left). The Blackjacks were supported by Il-78 tankers and by an An-124 transport from the Russian Air Force’s 224th Flight Detachment which carried the ground personnel and support equipment (including a radio beacon) to Venezuela.
Here it should be mentioned that in July 2008, the then President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez, a fierce critic of the US, had visited Russia. He had talks with President Dmitriy A. Medvedev in and Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin on various issues, including co-operation in defence matters. Venezuela is an established partner of Russia in this area, having signed 12 contracts for Russian we weapons worth more than $4.4 billion in total in 2005-07. On Sep. 1 Chavez said that Venezuela welcomed the Russia Navy and Air Force on its territory. “If the Russian Navy arrives in the Caribbean or the Atlantic it may certainly visit Venezuela we have no problems with that and would warmly welcome it. And if Russian long-range bombers should need to land in Venezuela we would not object to that either. We will also welcome them,” he said. Well, no sooner said than done.
In accordance with the pre-arranged plan, within the following few days the Blackjacks made two training flights over international waters. Each flight lasted about six hours. The first flight took place over the Caribbean in the direction of Panama, the second one was in the direction of Brazil at some distance from the coastline.
President Hugo Chavez was enthusiastic about the visit of the Russian strategic aircraft. “You have come to a brother nation, to a people which appreciates Russia and her bravery,” said Chavez, addressing the Russian crews, as he spoke at the launch ceremony of a new Venezuelan Navy frigate. He went on to say, “Thanks to was the strategic co-operation with Russia and the arrival of the [Russian] aircraft on Venezuelan soil and will be flying sorties over the Caribbean today and in the next few days, we will be informed of even the smallest movements of the [US Navy’s] 4th Fleet. […] Our strategic ties with Russia will grow stronger by the day because we are living in a world of free nations,” said Chavez.
The Blackjack produced an indelible impression on the Venezuelan leader. As a token of solidarity with Bolivian President Evo Moralez, who indeed had reasons to suspect the US of fanning political tension in the country, on the day of the Russian bombers’ arrival Chavez expelled the blameless US ambassador from Caracas and threatened to stop oil deliveries to the US if the US Navy’s 4th Fleet stepped up its activity. (The 4th Fleet had indeed become active in Latin American waters in July 2008, after a five-decade lull.) He described the presence of the two Russian missile carriers in the country as “a warning to the American empire” that Russia supported Venezuela, and that Venezuela was “no longer poor and lonely.” Speaking at a press conference shortly after the arrival of the bombers, he said, in Spanish, “…los bombarderos strategicos rusos Tupolev-cien-sesenta han aterrizado en Venezuela” (“…the Russian Tu-160 strategic bombers have landed in Venezuela”) and then, after a pause, could not resist the urge to add triumphantly: “Yessss. The landing of the strategic bombers is an evidence of transition to multi-polarity in world politics. Venezuela is free to develop political, economic, scientific and military-technical relations with those countries, with which she deems it necessary,” Chavez emphasized. Western correspondents accredited at Caracas noted that it was long since they had seen Hugo Chavez so happy and satisfied.
“I am going to fly one of these birds,” Chavez said. “Yesterday I did not appear in public because I was having a training session in a flight simulator. So, may it be known to you that I will be at the controls! Fidel, I am going to whizz over your island at treetop level!” However, this was wishful thinking — no Tu-160 flight simulator was available in Venezuela, and Chavez’ skills weren’t sufficient for him to fly the bomber even as a passenger. Also, he did not speak Russian, and the Russian pilots did not speak Spanish.
Predictably, the Russian bombers’ visit caused acute discontent in the West. Russia was then receiving more than enough bad publicity because of the war with US-backed Georgia a month earlier. Also, Moscow was frustrated with Washington’s plans to deploy elements of an anti-missile defence system in Europe and by NATO inching closer and closer to Russian borders. In turn, Russia sought to expand its military presence in recent years, up to the point of, “flexing some muscle in America’s backyard” and “demonstrating […] that it has a foothold in a region traditionally dominated by the US,” as some defence analysts put it.
After a week’s stay in Venezuela, the bombers departed from El Libertador AB at 1000 hrs Moscow time on Sep. 18 —three days later than planned because the hospitable Venezuelans would not let the crews go so easily. After following the designated flight route above international waters the Blackjacks landed at their home base at 0116 hrs Moscow time on Sep. 19.
Tupolev Tu-160 Soviet Strike Force Spearhead is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Russian Air and Space Force, Dmitry Terekhov from Odintsovo, Russian Federation and Alex Beltyukov via Wikipedia