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Backfires and the PLA-AF's New 'Strategic Air Force'

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by Dr. Carlo Kopp
Published on September 22nd, 2004

Late in June 2004, Hong Kong media revealed that in a resolution recently passed at the PLA-AF's internal session of the 10th Congress of the Communist Party of China, the PLA-AF would seek to become a “strategic air force.”[1] Acquiring the Russian Tu-22M-3 Backfire was noted as vital to this unprecedented policy change.

Tupolev Tu-22M3 strike bomber. Picture taken during the 2001 Moscow Airshow. Credit: RD Fisher
The media report also stressed that acquiring long-range bombers would be the main challenge. The Backfire was cited repeatedly. This report, unlike many out of Hong Kong, was replete with citations of characteristic CPC language and is remarkably detailed, covering issues of training, doctrine and force structure.[2]

The large-scale build-up in PLA-AF capabilities over the last decade has been and is clear evidence of several fundamental changes in strategic thinking. A large measure of the investment was put into long-range assets. The Su-27SK, Su-30MKK, Su-30MK2, A-50 AWACS, H-6U tankers and Il-78MKK tankers—to name a few examples—are all designed to achieve control of the air and strike capability of beyond 1,000 nautical miles. Until now there has been no stated doctrinal shift in the role of the PLA-AF, which historically was intended to defend Chinese airspace and support PLA land armies and the PLA-N in combat. The 10th CPC Congress announcement does more than formalize the change in the PLA-AF role. It also sets the PLA-AF apart from Army and Navy forces as a service with a unique and independent role—an important shift given the historical early Soviet-like doctrinal basis in PLA-AF thinking. Given these circumstances, there is every reason to regard the 10th Congress report to be accurate. If so, the implications are far reaching.

Recent reports that the chief of the PLA-AF has been elevated to the CMC level of the command heirarchy strongly support this evidence of a deep doctrinal shift in PLA thinking and an increasingly important role for the PLA-AF.

China first attempted to acquire Backfires during the first round of Russian equipment acquisitions after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia at that time was still uncertain about its future global position and courted Western investment on a large scale. Russian reports claimed the rejection was the result of intensive Japanese and U.S. lobbying.

Much has changed since then: China has become Russia’s largest export client for weapons; Western investment in Russia has dried up; Russia’s relationship with the United States cooled off since the Iraq War; and the Russian Air Force still faces serious funding difficulties. Most of its Backfire fleet is grounded for lack of funds: it cannot afford needed upgrades. India was to lease four Backfires, so an export precedent has been set. The Russians have encouraged competition between India and China, reflected in tit-for-tat acquisitions of Su-30MK, R-77, 3M-54/3M-14E missiles, A-50 AWACS, Il-78 tankers and submarines.

The political and strategic impediments to the mid-1990s Backfire export are now gone. The Sukhoi exports to China and India are, for Rosoboronexport and Tupolev, a prime example of decades of support and upgrade funding. By limiting the weapons package on Backfires targeted for export to China and not fitting internal fuel system plumbing for aerial refuelling probes, Russia can truthfully argue that it is exporting a regional rather than a strategic weapon.[3]

In practical terms it is now inevitable that China will eventually acquire Backfires. The only issue will be how soon, how many and with what weapons package and upgrades.

China has strong strategic incentives to deploy the Backfire. For one, it is competing with India for strategic primacy on the Asian mainland, and several squadrons of Backfires add significant potency to China's position. Closer to home, simmering tensions with Taiwan put a high premium on assets capable of deterring U.S. Navy CVB Gs.

It is reasonable to surmise that increasing tensions over Taiwan have intensified interservice competition for funding in the PLA. The Backfire, which would be instrumental in deterring U.S. CVBGs and blockading Taiwanese shipping lanes, is a good and affordable near-term choice for the PLA-AF, given the monies long earmarked for PLA-N submarines and aircraft carriers. Acquiring the Backfire would also strengthen Beijing’s hand against Washington’s. The United States is now restructuring its PacRim forces by increasing more responsive air and naval power at the expense of ground forces. Deploying the Backfire would effectively frustrate—that is, counterbalance—this U.S. effort.

The likely PLA-AF units to first receive Backfires would be those elements of the 8th (merged with the 48th), 10th and 36th Bomber Divisions, flying the oldest H-6 Badgers in the fleet. The displaced Badgers could be converted to H-6U tankers and assigned to the 2nd and 9th Bomber Divisions, or used as reserve airframes for remaining Badger squadrons. Should a firm Backfire sale be concluded in the next two years, a credible Initial Operational Capability could be achieved around 2010.

Sizing up the Tupolev Tu-22M-3 Backfire C

In 2002 a curious picture of a Tu-22M3 and a Chinese Xian JH-7 fighter bomber appeared on several Chinese military related web pages. There is no available explanation for the picture and it does not appear to be a fake. If a true photo then it may indicate that a Russian Tu-22M3 visited a Chinese airbase, and can be taken as a possible indication of continued Chinese interest in purchasing the Russian bomber.
The latest variant of the Backfire is the third-generation Tu-22M-3 Backfire C model, which remained in production until 1993.[4]

This is a major evolution from the Backfire B, and includes some use of titanium to further reduce weight. The effort was led by the Tupolev Bureau's Deputy Chief Designer Boris E Levanovich.[5]

The weapons suite for the Backfire C reflects its late Cold War Soviet tasking. The primary weapon for Aviatsiya Voenno-Morskovo Flota Backfires were antishipping, antiradiation and nuclear variants of the Raduga Kh-22/AS-4 Kitchen. Antiradiation and nuclear variants were also carried by Dal'naya Aviatsia Backfire C aircraft as defence suppression weapons. Mixes of one, two or three of these capable missiles can be carried.[6]

The bomb bay can also be fitted with a rotary launcher for six Kh-15/AS-16 Kickback defense suppression missiles, a Soviet analogue to the U.S. AGM-69 SRAM. Four rounds can be carried externally, for a total of ten weapons.

Like U.S. heavy bombers in the era predating precision bombs, the Backfire C can also carry a large payload of dumb bombs. External beam racks can be fitted to carry a total of up to 69 500-lb FAB-250 rounds. The external stations can also be used to carry FAB-1500 3,000-lb dumb bombs, for a total of eight rounds.

In terms of performance, the Backfire C compares closely to the now retired SAC FB-111A, but is much larger, carrying around 120,000 pounds of internal fuel. It has Mach 2 class dash speed and a combat radius of between 2,000 and 2,500 nautical miles, subject to weapon payload and profile. Tupolev data indicates that the aircraft is compatible with any runway capable of supporting a later Boeing 767 transport.

The Tu-22M-3 remained in production until 1993, and various sources claim that up to 268 units were built. As IOC was achieved in 1989 and operational flying rapidly curtailed after 1991, the average number of fatigue hours accumulated by the Backfire C fleet is very low, especially for the last aircraft built, which have a calendar age of only 11 years. U.S. sources put Russian Air Force inventory numbers at 70 to 105, Russian naval aviation numbers at 105, and Ukrainian Air Force numbers at 14 (with 16 Backfire B).

Arming China's Backfire C

Among the armament options for possible Chinese Tu-22M3 bombers would be the air-launched version of the NPO Machinostroyenia Yakhont anti-ship missile. The export version has a range of 300km, though China might increase its range, and its Mach 2.5 speed makes it very difficult to shoot down. credit: RD Fisher
Sources in Eastern Europe observe that the Russian Air Force has planned for some time to equip the Backfire C with a conventional precision weapons capability, emulating the U.S. heavy bomber fleet. There are no reports as yet that this has materialized, due to the budgetary situation the Russians face.

Russia would not export the Kh-55 / AS-15 Kent strategic cruise missile or the Kh-15A/R/S / AS-16 SRAM-ski as part of an export package.

Conventional variants of the supersonic Kh-22 were apparently offered to India. As the PLA-AF and PLA-N both operate variants of the Silkworm which use a closely related rocket engine and the same propellants, the Kh-22 would be very easy for the PLA to assimilate.

Integrating the 1,000-lb KAB-500L and 3,000-lb KAB-1500L laser guided bombs would be relatively simple, exploiting hardware for the FAB-1500. A FLIR / laser targeting pod like the Sapsan-E could be carried externally, but also repackaged into the existing bombsight fairing under the flight deck.[7]

Clearance of the electro-optical KAB-500Kr/1500Kr would present little difficulty, but inflight retargeting would require an avionic upgrade. The KAB-1500TK would require integration of the APK-9 Tekon pod, already carried by the PLA Su-30MKK.[8]

The satellite-aided inertially guided KAB-500S-E “JDAM-ski” is now being integrated on the Su-27SKM and Su-30MK, with KAB-1500S-E integration—software and wiring changes—now planned. There are no fundamental obstacles to integrating the KAB family weapons on the Backfire C, and the prospect of the PLA funding such long sought developments is likely to be very attractive to the cash strapped RuAF.

Indian sources claimed that integrating the Kh-31/AS-17 Krypton series of supersonic anti-radiation and anti-shipping missiles, which the PLA-AF adopted for the Su-30MKK and already has in inventory, was a likely prospect for the planned Indian Backfire C lease. Similar claims were also made for the Kh-35U Kharpunski anti-ship cruise missile, which could also be integrated on suitable launchers.

It is to be expected that the PLA-AF would seek to carry its planned strategic Air Launch Cruise Missiles (ALCM) on the Backfire C. Because the Chinese ALCM will have unique software requirements, it would likely be a later rather than earlier addition to the aircraft.[9]

The Strategic Impact of a PLA-AF Backfire

China's claimed intention to field the Backfire reflects multiple agendas and, accordingly, roles. At the upper end of the spectrum, the Backfire, using a range of supersonic and subsonic precision-guided weapons, provides a strategic regional, strike capability. It replicates the formidable sea control capability of the former Soviet AV-MF. Yet with a precision-guided bomb capability, it also provides battlefield interdiction and close air support capabilities much like that of U.S. heavy bombers.

Given the age and fatigue hours in the existing Russian stock of Backfire Cs, a service life into the 2040 timescale is a reasonable expectation for factory refurbished and well maintained aircraft. In terms of survivability, the Backfire compares closely to the SAC FB-111A and current B-1B. Its supersonic high altitude penetration profile remains very difficult to stop. Armed with even a 200-nautical mile class stand-off weapon, it provides limited opportunities for defending interceptors to successfully engage it.

The useful footprint of the Backfire, operating from Hainan Island and Meiktila (in Burma), extends almost to Diego Garcia to the west, northern Australia to the south and Guam to the east. The Backfire can hold at risk any surface target within this footprint, without aerial refuelling support.

In any confrontation with the United States, the Backfire is a tool to threaten navy surface fleet assets in the Indian Ocean, South China Sea and Pacific Ocean, as well as air force basing in Okinawa, Guam and South Korea. The impending loss of the F-14 leaves the United States Navy without a competitive interceptor to challenge the Backfire – the United States Air Force F-15 and new F/A-22A will provide a highly credible interception capability but constrained to land basing.

In a standoff with India, the Backfire is a tool to attack strategic targets and to deter India's growing surface fleet, especially its carrier forces. A secondary, but no less important capability, derives from the Backfire's ability to inflict heavy losses on maritime traffic, especially vital tanker traffic carrying crude oil to Indian shipping terminals. Without self-sufficiency in fossil fuels, India is extremely vulnerable to naval blockade operations.

Against smaller Pacrim nations, the Backfire can threaten strategic targets, naval targets and commercial sea lanes throughout the Far East and South East Asia. It provides a means of blockading Taiwan's sea lanes using missiles and naval mines, and doing so with a very large exclusion zone around the island. Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines and Australia could be subjected to similar coercion.

How much of this strategic potential China can develop will depend on how many Backfires it can acquire and on what weapons package and avionics upgrades it applies to them.

[1] in Chinese. '06/28/2004 - HK TV: China Plans To Build Strategic Air Force, Acquire Long-Range Bombers', Hong Kong Feng Huang Wang WWW-Text in Chinese 28 Jun 04, "From Supportive Service to Strategic Air Force; Major Change in China's Air Force Buildup Thinking

[2] in Chinese. '06/28/2004 - HK TV: China Plans To Build Strategic Air Force, Acquire Long-Range Bombers', Hong Kong Feng Huang Wang WWW-Text in Chinese 28 Jun 04, "From Supportive Service to Strategic Air Force; Major Change in China's Air Force Buildup Thinking

[3] India's recent acquisition of a Russian aircraft carrier presents an interesting precedent, insofar as the warship was provided for the cost of an overhaul, systems upgrade and air wing of aircraft. It is not inconceivable that the Russians could opt to sell Backfires for the cost of a deep overhaul and package of avionics upgrades, thus realising some return on investment from the underutilised Backfire stockpile.

[4] The earliest origins of the Backfire were in the earlier Tu-22 Blinder, a Russian analogue to the US B-58 Hustler. Inferior to the B-58, the Soviet air staff sought a significantly more capable design. This was the Backfire A, which evolved into the Backfire B and finally the Backfire C.

[5] During the mid-1990s the author discussed the Tu-22M-3 with Levanovich, who asserted that the aircraft had a hi-hi-hi combat radius of 4,000 km (2,160 NMI) with a payload of three Kh-22M/AS-4 missiles, well in excess of then current Western estimates.

[6] In concept the Kh-22 family of missiles most closely resembles the British Blue Steel supersonic standoff missile carried by the V-bomber fleet during the 1960s. The Soviets developed the idea much further.

[7] The KAB-500L/1500L are Russian analogues of the US GBU-16 and GBU-10 laser guided bombs.

[8] The KAB-500Kr/1500Kr are GBU-8 analogues, the KAB-1500TK a GBU-15 analogue.

[9] There have been reports that the PLA acquired tooling for the Russian Kh-65 ALCM, a Russian analogue of the AGM-86C carried by the US B-52H. The H-6H Badger cruise missile carrier derivative unveiled in 2002 was shown carrying four missiles with the size and shape of a Kh-65 derivative missile.

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