Russian Tu-160 Strategic Bombers Conduct 13 Hour Flight Along NATO’s Northern Frontier: MiG-31s Fly Escort

On November 25 two Russian Air Force Tu-160 intercontinental range strategic bombers were reported to have been deployed for a 13 hour flight over international waters over the Barents and Norwegian Seas, with the Defence Ministry reporting: “Two Tu-160 long-range strategic bombers carried out a planned flight over the neutral waters of the Barents and Norwegian Seas. They were accompanied by MiG-31 fighters of the Northern Fleet’s Air Force and Air Defense group.” The flight comes at a time of high tensions between Moscow and the Western Bloc due primarily to the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian War. The Tu-160 is the most capable strategic bomber in Russian service, although only a single squadron of 16 bombers is currently in service as the original planned production run of 100 aircraft was cut short when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. This has meant that the aircraft have been often reserved for high profile shows of force, and have frequently been used to signal Russia’s adversaries at times of high tensions. 

The Tu-160 is prized for its unrivalled maximum speeds exceeding Mach 2, as well as its large arsenal of Kh-101 radar evading cruise missiles. 50 new Tu-160s are expected to enter service by the mid 2030s, with the decision to restart production being partly a result of slow progress developing a successor to the aircraft under the PAK DA program. The first post Soviet Tu-160 to be built made its maiden flight in January 2022. Older airframes have also been modernised with 21st century avionics, with those brought up to the latest standards designated as Tu-160M. The Tu-160 is widely considered the world’s most capable intercontinental range bomber, although this title is expected to be lost by the mid 2020s as the Chinese H-20 and American B-21 are set to enter service. The MiG-31 Foxhound interceptor has frequently served as an escort for Tu-160s, and is the heaviest and fastest fighter/interceptor in the world with a capacity to carry six oversized air to air missiles – the massive and very long ranged R-37M which can engage targets 400km away. The MiG-31 has no peers in terms of extreme range engagement capabilities largely due to its very high carrying capacity, although it too is long overdue to for replacement with its successor the PAK DP interceptor, much like the PAK DA strategic bomber, facing significant delays due to the post Soviet slowdown in Russia’s combat aviation sector.