Newly Deployed to Syrian Base: Russian Tu-22M3 Bombers with Mach 10 Ballistic Missiles Project Power Over Mediterranean

Following a new deployment of Russian Air Force Tu-22M3 supersonic long range bombers to Khmeimim Airbase in Eastern Syria, the aircraft have begun longer range patrols over neutral waters in the Mediterranean Sea. The deployment comes amid high tensions between Russia and NATO member states over Ukraine, specifically Russian concerns of possible accession to NATO by Kiev and Western warnings of a possible Russian invasion. The announcement of the deployment by the Russian Defence Ministry also coincided with a parallel deployment of Tu-22M3 bombers for patrols over Belarus, which has emerged as a tense frontier between Russia and the West. 

Khmeimim Airbase first began to be used for operations in August 2015, shortly preceding a Russian military intervention in support of Syrian government counterinsurgency efforts, but in early 2021 saw runways expanded to be able to host heavier classes of aircraft capable of carrying out long range strikes across NATO’s southern underbelly in southern Europe. This was followed in May 2021 by the first deployments of Tu-22M bombers, alongside MiG-31K strike fighters the following month. The new deployment announced on February 17, 2022, notably saw both Tu-22M3s and MiG-31Ks deployed with Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missiles. 

Regarding the deployment, the Russia’s Defense Ministry announced: ”The long-range aircraft involving Tu-22M3 bombers and MiG-31K fighters with Kinzhal airborne systems have deployed to the Khmeimim airfield for participation in the naval drills of the Russian Navy’s inter-fleet task force in the eastern Mediterranean… The crews of Russia’s Aerospace Force have performed flights from their home airfields, covering over 1,500 km. During the exercise, the pilots of long-range aviation will accomplish assigned missions.” This followed major NATO exercises in the Mediterranean just days prior on February 6-7. It also followed a statement in January by commander of Russia’s long-range air force Sergei Kobylash that exercises had “confirmed Tu-22M3 have range capabilities for targets across the entire Mediterranean Sea.” He further elaborated: “The landing and operation of Tu-22M3 aircraft at the Khmeimim air base is a landmark event. Firstly, the crews of long-range air force have practiced using a new airfield and signalled the presence of the long-range air force in the Mediterranean region.” 

The beginning of new patrols by Tu-22M3 bombers comes a month after the Russian Air Force and the Syrian Arab Air Force began joint patrols, amid growing signs of Russian efforts to support a rebuilding of Syrian aerial warfare capabilities which included in 2020 delivery of MiG-29SMT fighter jets as aid. These developments notably come as Syria’s two greatest regional adversaries, Israel and Turkey, move to strengthen ties, with both having cooperated closely against Syria in the past and frequently violating Syrian airspace and supporting insurgents within the country. A stronger Syrian air defence capability will lessen the burden on Russian units at Khmeimim Airbase, which have frequently intercepted Turkish and Israeli attacks on Syria, allowing Russian forces to focus more on projecting power westwards against NATO. Russia’s support for Syria, in the face of illegal Turkish, Israeli and Western deployments to its territory and U.S. and Turkish illegal appropriation of its oil wealth, has been key to gaining it basing rights on the country’s strategically located east coast. 

The deployment of and patrols by Tu-22M3 and MiG-31K units is particularly notable due to their armaments, with the Kh-47M2 missile being one of the most capable tactical ballistic missiles in the world with an unrivalled flight performance including a Mach 10 speed and very high manoeuvrability. The missile is considered effectively impossible to intercept, can engage both ground targets and warships with high precision and has a 2000m engagement range which is reportedly extended to 3000km for larger variants deployed by the Tu-22M. NATO member states notably lack an equivalent asset to the Kh-47M2, which represents an asymmetric asset that could potentially be used to close off the Mediterranean to Western warships and strike key hubs of a Western war effort across much of Europe. The recent patrols using aircraft armed with these missiles notably closely follows the deployment of MiG-31K jets for the first time to airbases in the Kaliningrad enclave bordering Poland, which is Russia’s westernmost territory and places all of Europe and much of the Atlantic comfortably within engagement range. As the Russian military is overwhelmingly outnumbered and outspend by NATO forces, reliance on these kinds of asymmetric assets have become increasingly central to its defence.

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