natsouth

A summer of sabre-rattling: snapshot of strategic bomber flights

1st part of some information gathering on USAF strategic flights regularly promoted as " routine training" and "reassurance missions" for NATO allies and also to deter 'adversaries' or 'competitors'.

UPDATED INFOGRAPHICS 24 Sept.

Here's my first stab at trying to visualise the various B-52, B-1 and B-2 flights since May with a timeline of reported flights, with the addition of noteworthy naval exercises in the "High North", in particular in the Barents Sea, not far to the Russian Northern Fleet HQ on the Kola peninsula. 

It was a lengthy task to compile the details so there is certainly some omissions, so consider this as WORK IN PROGRESS. It is meant to give an indication of the unprecedented tempo and type of flights, along Russian borders, (Baltic Sea, Barents Sea, Arctic region, Laptev and Okhotsk Sea. 

September has been particular busy, in stark contrast to the total numbers of flights for previous years (since 2015).  The USAF did not deploy as often as it has been lately.   

In my last article, I only highlighted information from intelligence-gathering air missions, as reported by the Russian MoD.  On September 11th, the Commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces, Sergei Surovikin, gave a briefing to defence attachés, in which he noted that:

"we recorded mainly the actions of reconnaissance aircraft, but recently the number of combat aircraft flights has increased."

During the briefing, Gen. Surovikin mentioned that the U.S. only gave vague prior notice of the arrival to RAF Fairford of 4 B-52s in late August for a duration of 2 weeks.  

In general, US bomber aircraft from August 28 to September 4 this year made 10 single and group flights in the airspace of Western and Eastern Europe, as well as over the adjacent sea areas.
[...]  on September 7 and 8, we also recorded B-52 flights from Fairford air base to the southern and northern regions of Europe.

Yet, as can be seen from my timeline visual, the B-52s are still conducting flights, including from RAF Fairford in the third quarter of September. Gen. Surovikin also added that 3 B-52s on 31 August practiced launching simulated ALCM launches on Kaliningrad and other places in Western Russia. The tracks of the flight paths of the B-52 on 28 and 31 August and on 4 September were shown as visuals during the briefing, (screenshot below):

Screenshot of Russian MoD briefing: flight paths of the B-52 on 28 & 31 Aug and 4 Sept
Screenshot of Russian MoD briefing: flight paths of the B-52 on 28 & 31 Aug and 4 Sept

Of interest is the Black Sea, Sea of Azov and Ukraine B-52 flights:

Meanwhile, two Russian Tu-160 Blackjacks were deployed on 14 September along the Norwegian coast to the North Sea, in international airspace. Roughly, at the same time in September, the USAF sent out two B-1B Lancers over the Bering and Sea of Okhotsk.  

In response, Two other  Tu-22M3 bombers flew a 5-hour flight over the Black Sea and another 2 Tu-160 flew in the Baltic Sea region on the 16th September.  Roughly, 6 sorties by Russia in response to double the flights made by the USAF along the Baltic, Barents and Black Sea regions.

During a press briefing given on 18 September, by the Chief of the Main Operations Directorate of Russia’s General Staff, General Rudskoy, the B-52 flights in the Black Sea region were mentioned. Gen. Rudskoy  stated that they carried out simulated missile strikes on targets in the Southern Military District over the Sea of Azov and Black Sea on 28 August, 4 & 14 September, with aircraft coming close as 11km to the Russia's border.

Screenshot of Russian MoD briefing: flight paths of B-52  on 4 Sept
Screenshot of Russian MoD briefing: flight paths of B-52 on 4 Sept

On 19 September, two Tu-160 bombers flew in the Alaskan ADIZ area for 4 hours. Details here: 

 https://twitter.com/NORADCommand/status/1307374127737495553

The two Tu-160 bombers made a 25-hour flight not only around the Bering Straits but a huge loop across the Arctic & Pacific Oceans, Barents, Kara, Laptev, East Siberian, Chukchi, Kamachatka and Okhotsk Sea.

Snapshot of Russian strategic bombers flights - Summer 2020
Snapshot of Russian strategic bombers flights - Summer 2020

Reconnaissance and strategic sorties made by Russian military aviation are much lower in numbers than for NATO and U.S. sorties along Russian borders.  These flights are significantly closer to Russian borders and less frequent than the extensive global reach of the USAF.  Only one flight (TU-160) to the North Sea would be deemed comparable to that those carried out by the B-52s.

 General Rudskoy stated that the number of reconnaissance aircraft flights in the Black Sea region has increased by 40% compared to the same period last year, 

General Rudskoy also added that "the intensity of air reconnaissance operations directly near the Crimean Peninsula increased by 61 percent". Judging by the graphics provided during the briefing, a breakdown of the figures for NATO reconnaissance flights in the Black Sea region were given as:

2019: 184 /6/0

2020: 258/69/6

I wonder how do these figures compare to those kept by NATO and NORAD with regards to Russian reconnaissance and strategic bomber flights.  I suspect that there is a huge difference in numbers and locations. I wonder how the U.S. public and media outlets would react to 258 air reconnaissance flights by Russian aviation in the Gulf of Mexico or off Alaska?

It is all relative:

https://twitter.com/NORADCommand/status/1307697130203570181

“to respond to increased Russian military activity along the periphery of both nations. “

Summary

'Increased'  —  The series of articles hopefully have dug a little deeper on what this actually means in reality. Russian military authorities have also reported an  significant increase in the numbers of U.S., NATO and other sea and air activities along their borders. Yet, it remains to be seen how these figures stand in comparison to reported Russian military flights far from Russia.

Summer 2019 and 2020 comparison of air reconnaissance missions along Russian borders
Summer 2019 and 2020 comparison of air reconnaissance missions along Russian borders
Jan-Aug 2020 Air reconnaissance & intelligence gathering air missions along Russian borders. (Source Russian MoD 2020)
Jan-Aug 2020 Air reconnaissance & intelligence gathering air missions along Russian borders. (Source Russian MoD 2020)

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