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Backfire bomber: Does India really need Russias carrier killer?

The Indian Air Force has a variety of specialised fighters, ground attack jets and
multirole aircraft in its fleet, but a strategic bomber has never figured in its war
plans. According to the Russian wire service Interfax, that could change as Indias
Ministry of Defence has reportedly sought to buy four Tupolev Tu-22M3 maritime
strike bombers from Russia.
This isnt the first time reports have surfaced that India is interested in acquiring
this fearsome Cold Warrior codenamed Backfire by NATO. According to the
Federation of American scientists, In December 1999 it was announced that
India would lease four Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers, with the aircraft slated to
arrive in India as early as June 2000. They never did.
However, the first time the Backfire was set to fly into the subcontinent was in
mid-1971 when Russia offered it as a strategic bomber. However, Air Chief
Marshal P.C. Lal rejected the offer. According to defence analyst Bharat Karnad,
the reasons trotted out verged on the farcical.
Karnad explains: As Wing Commander (later Air Marshal) C.V. Gole, member of
the Air Marshal Sheodeo Singh Mission to Moscow and test pilot, who flew the Tu22(M) informed me, he was appalled by the fact that he had to be winched up
into the cockpit, and that the plane would have to take off from as far east as
Bareilly to reach cruising altitude over Pakistan!
Although the Backfire has been creating panic in American carrier groups for
decades (the Chinese have also tried hard to buy the bomber or its design
blueprints), which is an indication of its utility, the IAF has refused to accept what
has been offered to it on a platter. It prefers to remain bogged down at the
theatre level while steadfastly refusing to grow a strategic wing.
Armed and dangerous
To be sure, the Backfire is a completely different species of aircraft compared
with the IAFs current fleet, and a doctrinal transplant would have to happen
before the air force brass can envision a role for a long-range strike bomber.
The Tu-22M is an extremely large aircraft armed flown by a four-man crew of a
pilot, co-pilot, navigator and weapon systems operator. With its phenomenal
combat range of 2400 km, and a blistering speed of over 2300 kph (faster than
most jet fighters), the Tu-22M is ideal for targeting aircraft carriers and large
ships. Russian tests reveal that when a shaped charge warhead weighing 1000
kg was used in the Kh-22 missile, the resulting hole measured 16 ft in diameter
and 40 ft deep. Not even the largest US Navy CVNs can survive such an impact,
and at the very least will be out of commission of months.

The bomber is designed to take off from secure inland bases, be vectored
towards US aircraft carrier groups and fire its complement of up to six often
nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from safe standoff distances.
The Backfires primary weapon is the supersonic Raduga Kh-22 cruise missile. In
high-altitude mode, it climbs to the edge of space (89,000 ft) and makes a near
hypersonic speed dive towards its target. In low-altitude mode, it climbs to
39,000 ft (higher than most commercial airliners) and makes a shallow dive at
Mach 3.5, making the final approach at an altitude under 1600 ft.
Bill Sweetman and Bill Gunston write in Soviet Air Power that the Kh-22 missile
could be programmed to enter the correct Pentagon window. In fact, during the
1980s, Russian Naval Aviation was so sure about the accuracy of these missiles
that the Backfire carried only one Kh-22, armed with a nuclear warhead.
Todays Backfires are also equipped with the more advanced Kh-15. This missile
climbs to an astounding 130,000 ft and then dives in on the target, accelerating
to Mach 5, which makes it the worlds fastest aircraft-launched missile.
Just like the MiG-25 spooked western air force pilots of a previous generation, the
Backfire was a big scare word in western military circles during the 1970s.
American experts involved in arms limitation talks believed it was an
intercontinental strategic bomber. Russian secrecy about the aircrafts
capabilities added to the speculation, leading American intelligence and US
aircraft manufacturers (for obvious reasons) to suggest inflated ranges. This led
to fears that the Backfire could strike the continental US.
However, even when the Russians added inflight refuelling capability, the
Backfire wasnt intended to strike the US, but rather its naval assets in the open
sea. Russian Naval Aviation strategists envisioned up to a hundred Tu-22M
bombers making a pack attack against US Navy carrier battle groups in the event
of war.
Backfire for India
Built at the peak of the Cold War when speed, payload and range mattered more
than cost, the heavy Backfire is an expensive to operate and maintain bomber.
The general consensus was that deploying it against high value assets alone
makes sense. However, Russia used it with devastating effect against the Afghan
Mujahideen in the 1980s and in the 2008 Georgian War, with its iconic moment
when Georgias tie-chewing President Mikheil Saakashvili runs for cover as
Russian bombers fly overhead.
Again, in the ongoing conflict in Syria, Backfires have rained freefall bombs,
destroying Daesh assets as well as US-backed terror groups. These strikes have
severely degraded Daesh strength in the region.
Since the IAF has at least 400 attack aircraft, including the Sukhoi Su-30MKI,
MiG-29 and Mirage-2000, that have Pakistan sorted, deploying the Backfire
against Pakistan would be a huge overkill. Using limited numbers against

Chinese land targets would be suicidal as Beijing has a robust air defence
network bolstered by the Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile and its Chinese
The Backfires only conceivable deployment in India is as a maritime strike
bomber against Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) assets, especially in the
backdrop of growing Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean.
Backfires operating from the Thanjavur Air Force Base in southern India and
armed with the 300 km range BrahMos can comfortably strike naval assets up
to Seychelles. They can also be used to target PLAN vessels operating in the
South China Sea. The bombers ferry of 6800 km means it can reach Darwin,
Australia, without aerial refuelling. Clearly, such an aircraft would be a huge force
multiplier for India.
If the media reports about India wanting a limited number of just four Backfires
are true, then it would suggest they would be deployed in a maritime rather
than strategic strike role. The bombers are equipped to receive data directly
from spy satellites monitoring the oceans. India, which has a constellation of
ocean survey and spy satellites, can access real time satellite intelligence and
despatch the Backfires on ship hunting missions. The bombers can also be
guided by scout aircraft.
Forces rivalry
While the IAFs timidity in adopting a strategic role is a likely reason for the
repeated rejection of the Backfire, another factor could be forces rivalry. Air
forces are highly resistant to strategic bombing being done by the navy or army.
The Tu-22M being a specialised maritime strike bomber, it could in the IAFs
view be the beginning of the navys strategic air arm. The air force clearly
doesnt want the Indian Navy poaching on its turf. In this backdrop, chances are
the IAF will find another farcical excuse to scuttle Backfire talks.
Operate with caution
The Russian bomber is certainly a game changer, but it doesnt mean India
should rush headlong into a deal. In terms of size, firepower and reach, it dwarfs
everything in Indias air arm, but it should not be forgotten that the Tu-22M is a
40 year old design. It last rolled off the assembly lines in 1993 and the aircraft is
well out of guarantee, so the delivery of spares might be an issue. Flight Global
reports that in 1991 the Tu-22M mission-capable rate was just 30-40 per cent,
although it was not really a representative year because thats when the Soviet
command economy had collapsed.
India should have bought these aircraft cheap as chips when the Soviet Union
dissolved and Moscow was wondering what to do with 300 surplus Backfires. But
costs aside, having a nascent fleet comprising just four bombers would still be a
good idea as it would give India a rare glimpse into the world of strategic

During the Cold War, only two organisations in the West had got the Backfires
range right. The first was US aircraft maker McDonnell Douglas and the other was
Flight International, where Sweetman, the defence analyst worked. Years later, in
1992, the Russians brought the Tu-22M to the Farnborough International Air
Show, along with a one-page handout. According to Sweetman,
(http://www.airspacemag.com/history-of-flight/though-a-glass-darkly-billsweetman-technically-speaking-column-180957300/?no-ist) Wed hit the fuel
capacity within 5 per cent.
When Flight International had published the Backfires range, an engineer from
McDonnell Douglas had called them, wondering how the magazine had hit the
same numbers his team had. Sweetman explains: Later, I found out why that
McDonnell Douglas guy was so surprised. His team had been working for what he
preferred to call the Culinary Institute of America, which was quarrelling with the
US Air Force. The Air Force claimed the Backfire had intercontinental range; the
CIA said it could make it with inflight refuelling but could never get back.
US Air Force intelligence boss Major General George Keegan threatened to mess
with the F-15 programme a huge McDonnell Douglas contract if McDonnell
Douglas analysts, the ones feeding the CIA, didnt find more fuel tanks in the
Russian bomber so that their conclusions matched his. CEO Sanford Sandy
McDonnell stood his ground. Keegan went on to start the Great Space Laser Panic
of 79. And the Tu-22M did what it did best, which wasnt strategic bombing but
scaring the bejeesus out of carrier groups.