Once again, Russia has upped the air combat capability ante on the Crimean Peninsula with Tu-22M3 Backfires reportedly deploying there as part of widespread 'snap' readiness drills among Russian forces. This marks the first time a Russian strategic asset like the Tu-22 has operated from Crimea since the territory was annexed last winter.
Sending the Tu-22M3s to Crimea is said to be part of a large number of drills running all over Russia, including large ground combat drills in the Russia's western military district, cooperative tactical drills with Serbia, surface action exercises with the Northern Fleet, as well as smaller drills in Russia's eastern military district. These short notice deployments and excesses are meant to prove the readiness states of key areas of Russia's military apparatus, and in doing so they also work to send a message to Russia's increasingly concerned western neighbors. Speculation as to what exactly that message is depends on who you ask.
The deployment of the 140-foot-long, 250,000-lb (loaded) swing-wing Tu-22M3 to Crimea is interesting in particular as the modernized Backfires are known to be optimized for striking naval targets. Their high-speed dash capabilities allow them to make long supersonic runs at targeted ships and they can carry the fastest anti-ship missile in service today, the Kh-15, NATO name 'Kickback.' This nearly hypersonic missile, of which the Tu-22M3 can carry six internally (seen below), climbs to an altitude over 100,000 feet before barreling down at its target at speeds that can reach well over mach four. The Kh-15 can be launched at over 150 miles away from its target, on the outer edges of the US Navy's AEGIS air combat system's engagement capability (especially for a target that can show up very quick, launch its missiles, and run like hell in the opposite direction at over Mach 1.6.)
The Tu-22M3's high approach speed, along with the Kh-15's very high terminal attack speed and standoff range make the pair extremely dangerous for ships operating in confined waters, not far from territory where the Tu-22M3 could emerge from. Thus the Black Sea is the Tu-22M3's ideal hunting grounds.
For longer-ranged strikes, the Tu-22M3's can employ the larger Kh-22, NATO name "Kitchen," anti-ship cruise missile that still offers terminal speeds of over mach four and a range of around double that of the Kh-15. The Tu-22M3 can carry three of these massive "aircraft carrier-killers."
The sudden 'snap' deployment of the Backfires to Crimea may be a response to the small armada of NATO ships that are currently plowing the Black Sea, which includes the flagship of the pocket flotilla, the Ticonderoga Class guided missile cruiser USS Vicksburg (CG 69), HMCS Fredericton (FFH 337), TCG Turgutreis (F 241), FGS Spessart (A 1442), ITS Aliseo (F 574) and ROS Regina Maria (F 222). Although the Tu-22M3s deployment to Crimea certainly is a major upgrade in anti-ship and long-range strike capability for region, and the aircraft are near perfectly suited for attacking ships in the confines of the Black Sea, Russia already has an astounding, bordering on dizzying array of anti-ship missile platforms in Crimea.
With all this in mind, the ability for the Backfires to reach out and strike surface targets with great speed and violence of action, virtually anywhere in the Black Sea, and even while still flying over Crimea's territorial waters, represents a credible threat to say the least, and a capability that Russia's standing contingent of Su-24s, Su-27s and Su-30s based on the Peninsula cannot compete with.
The bottom line is that 'Fortress Crimea" now features strategic bombers, news that may have been inevitable but is still undoubtedly disturbing to Crimea's NATO neighbors and to NATO ships churning through the waters of the Black Sea. Over the last year Russian attack aircraft and fighters have made bold mock attack runs at NATO ships operating in the western Black Sea, now we will have to wait and see if the big, intimidating, swing-wing Backfires come out to give the current US led flotilla a hard time.
Source. All shots via wiki-commons unless stated otherwise: Top shot, second shot and final - Alex Beltyukov, side climbing shot- Rob Schleiffert, weapons bay shot- Unknown/public domain, Kh-22 mounted shot- Jno, Fleet shot via NATO
CLARIFICATION: Headline tweaked to indicate that the planes, while reportedly set to deploy, may have not arrived yet.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com