Russia vs. America: Nuclear Bomber Showdown

THE NATIONAL INTEREST — In the previous articles “These Russian Nukes Are Better Than America’s” and “U.S. vs Russia: Struggling for Undersea Nuclear Supremacy” we reviewed the strategic nuclear balance between Russia and the United States in the context of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (I?BMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), respectively. We have also examined in detail the issue of the total number of strategic carriers and nuclear warheads in the arsenals of these countries and their compliance with the New Start Treaty, which reduces the number of carriers to seven hundred and the number of warheads to 1,550.

In this article, we will address the last component of nuclear forces left: strategic bombers. In the U.S. and Russian arsenals, bombers make the least share of strategic nuclear forces—5.5 percent of the warheads owned by Washington (eighty-five bombers, each equaling one warhead according to the New Start Treaty) and around 3 percent of those owned by Russia (approximately fifty bombers in service).

At first sight this is a very small share representing no significant contribution. Nevertheless, there is a “but”: although a strategic bomber is accounted for one warhead, in reality it carries many more. For example, the Russian Tu-160 “White Swan” (NATO reporting name: Blackjack) can carry up to twelve strategic cruise missiles with nuclear warheads; therefore, the real capacity of strategic bombers is not accurately expressed on paper. In general, though, they have both pros and cons over I?BMs. Among the advantages of bombers, one can mention a significant unpredictability of attack direction, the ability to change a combat mission in flight and the ability to use nonnuclear precision weapons in local and regional conflicts. As for the main drawback, one can name lower action speed during a strike-back—modern I?BMs require five minutes for pre-start preparation at most, which is not the case for aviation. On the other hand, when there are several aircraft on alert in the sky, it is almost impossible to destroy them with a preventive strike over the “home” territory. However, from a technical point of view, the interception of a bomber or cruise missile is currently more feasible than effective missile defense.

Let us now turn our attention to the parties’ strategic aviation in more detail, and compare the efficiency of their current weapons.

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