On December 23, Russia marked the Strategic Aviation Day, which was established to commemorate the creation of the world's first squadron of heavy bombers in 1914. Since then strategic aviation has become an element of the strategic nuclear triad ensuring Russia's security.
Currently, only three countries have strategic aviation - Russia, the United States and China. In fact, only Russia and the U.S. have it, because China only has license-made Russian Tu-16s, whose range and armaments do not meet modern requirements.
The bulk of Russian and U.S. strategic bombers were made during the Cold War.
The United States has 90 B-52H bombers, a modification of the B-52 plane designed in the 1950s. Made in the early 1960s, they are armed with cruise missiles and bombs. The Stratofortresses are expected to remain on combat duty until the 2040s and possibly longer.
The U.S. Air Force also has 20 B-2 Spirit (Stealth) bombers made in the 1990s, and 66 B-1B Lancer supersonic bombers used as conventional weapons carriers.
Russia's main strategic bomber is a Cold War veteran, the Tu-95MS Bear, a 1980s modification of the Tu-95 plane made in the 1950s. The Russian Air Force has 64 Tu-95MS Bears armed with long-range cruise missiles.
Russia's latest strategic bomber is the supersonic Tu-160 Blackjack. It has 14 such planes and plans to resume their mass production, which was suspended in the 1990s.
In addition, Russia has over 150 long-range Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers in its Air Force and Navy. They have a shorter range than the Tu-95 and the Tu-160 and are designed primarily for bombing targets in Eurasia and North Africa and the surrounding seas.
Shortly before the Strategic Aviation Day, Air Force Commander Gen. Anatoly Zhikharev reported on the progress in the creation of a new strategic bomber by the Tupolev design bureau.
The possibility of creating a new prospective strategic bomber was first reported in 2008. In August 2009, the Russian government said it signed a relevant contract with the Tupolev bureau, which has designed the bulk of the country's strategic aircraft since the 1930s.
Eventually, the new strategic bomber will replace the Tu-22M3 and Tu-95 aircraft, which are becoming obsolete, and will complement (and subsequently replace) the Tu-160.
The specifications of the prospective plane are kept secret, but sources say it will be a crossover between the Tu-22M3 and the heavier and more expensive Tu-160.
Since it will be cheaper than the Tu-160, the Russian Air Force will be able to buy a sufficient number of the new planes to decommission the Tu-95MS and the Tu-22M3. In all 200 aircraft will be replaced, including those made for the Navy.
It is so far unclear when the new plane will be ready. It was said in the summer of 2009 that it should make its maiden flight in 2015 or 2016, but sources say the deadline could be shifted to 2012-2013. Mass production is expected to start in 2019 or 2020.
The new supersonic bomber will have stealth elements, carry cruise missiles, and have a sufficient range to reach targets in Eurasia, North Africa and possibly (with midair refueling) on other continents and in the outlying regions of the World's Oceans.
The new plane will have a variety of weapons, in particular multirole cruise missiles and guided bombs, ensuring its use for different purposes, from pinpoint strikes in local conflict zones to nuclear strikes.
Strategic aviation is one of the most flexible elements of the military system. Unlike nuclear missile submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers can carry conventional weapons for use in local conflicts and fulfill a wide range of tasks in an all-out war.
Such flexibility of the multirole strategic bombers ensures them a prominent place in Russia's defenses even though they cannot fly as fast or carry as large an equivalent yield as intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti military commentator Ilya Kramnik)