Two of Russia’s long-range, nuclear capable Tu-160 bombers made the long trek to Venezuela over the past week, prompting an expected exchange of barbs from national diplomats and an utter misrepresentation of the situation from much of the global media.
Russia’s Tupolev Tu-160 bombers bare a passing resemblance to America’s legendary B-1B Lancer, complete with variable-sweep wing design and the ability to maintain supersonic speeds, though the Tu-160 is slightly larger and is claimed to be faster, by Russian officials. While that may be the case, the two things that really set Russia’s Tu-160 and America’s B-1B apart are that America produced nearly three times as many of their own supersonic bombers, and opted to convert them to carry strictly conventional weapons as a part of the START treaty with Russia back in 2011.
If you’re among the millions of Americans that get their news via headlines you scroll past during the brief moments of free time you can steal away from your job and familial responsibilities, the headlines associated with these two bombers (as well as a fleet of support aircraft, including heavy-lift cargo haulers likely jam-packed with spare parts for the aging bombers), you could be forgiven for thinking economically troubled Venezuela is about to become the site of a new generation’s “Cuban missile crisis,” with Russian “nuclear bombers” deploying to South America — placing the mainland within striking distance.
While technically true that these bombers now have the mainland United States within their operational range, and technically true that they are capable of carrying nuclear weapons… these headlines misrepresent the actual circumstances of this deployment rather egregiously. This is not the first time Russia has sent these supersonic and nuclear capable bombers — and although previous deployments have come during times of heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia, one would be hard pressed to find a suitable span of time in contemporary history within which the U.S. and Russia didn’t find themselves eyeballing one another from opposing sides of diplomatic channels.
In fact, this is the third time in fifteen years Russia has sent Tu-160 bombers to Venezuela, with five year intervals separating each deployment. It’s almost as though these events are coordinated ahead of time… because they are. And in those previous incidents, like this one, the aircraft didn’t carry any nuclear weapons with them. In fact, Russian officials have claimed that the two bombers in Venezuela made the flight without carrying any ordnance at all. The bombers also flew in accordance with international norms pertaining to their use of airspace and even gave America’s borders a wide berth on their approach.
It is similarly silly to so prominently feature these bombers as specifically “nuclear bombers.” America’s B-52 Stratofortress, for instance, serves as the primary asset in the airborne leg of America’s nuclear triad, but the media doesn’t characterize every B-52 flight as America’s deployment of Nuclear bombers to within thousands of miles of Russian airspace… simply because the flights are too numerous to warrant that sort of chicanery.
While these Tu-160s, with an operational range of 7,643 miles without in-flight refueling, could now feasibly strike the United States from their current parking spots in Venezuela, this isn’t a new development in terms of Russia’s ability to nuke American soil if they wanted to. Russia’s ICBM arsenal, currently being supplemented by their new RS-28 Sarmat, is more advanced and boasts far more destructive capability per weapon than the United States’ aging stockpile. The sheer number of Russian nuclear warheads that could be unleashed toward the U.S. alone would render all missile defense systems useless, as they would immediately be overwhelmed by the volume. It’s not an invisible barrier around the Western hemisphere the U.S. maintains by keeping bombers out of South America that staves off nuclear war — it’s the long-held deterrent approach of mutually assured destruction; which it pays to note hasn’t changed as a result of these bombers hitting South American airstrips.
In fact, in June of 2010, two Tu-160 bombers set a record when they conducted a 23-hour, 9,700 mile patrol through international airspace in the Arctic. That record-setting flight proved that these bombers could indeed reach U.S. soil if they were so inclined — though strategically it would offer little benefit if the intent was all out nuclear war (of which there would be no other kind with the United States). ICBMs would do the trick just fine.
Besides, Russia’s Tu-95 Bear bombers are also nuclear capable… and the U.S. intercepts them off the coast of Alaska about as frequently as Vladimir Putin appears topless in a publicity photo.
Of course, none of this is to suggest that Russia didn’t hope to send a message with their bombers (even if they did need to send them with a cargo hauler full of spare parts): Russia’s military operations are intrinsically tied to their global disinformation and narrative management campaigns — this recent deployment is no exception to that rule. Russia wants and needs to convey the image of a global power with far-reaching military might — and although that doesn’t exactly reflect reality for the nation’s troubled economy and dwindling defense budget, they’re always happy to get to a much-needed boost in pubic perception thanks to click-bait stories about America’s impending Tu-160 led nuclear doom.