Three Russian Tu-22M3 long-range nuclear-capable bombers, which arrived Sunday at the Hmeymim Air Base in Syria, began over-flights in the Mediterranean Sea region today.
At least one of the aircraft was photographed taking off with the KH-32 long-range anti-ship missile strapped to its wing.
That the Tu-22M3 aircraft will be a regular feature over Syria can be gauged from a Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) press statement; “Aircraft of this type are based at the Hmeymim Air Base airfield for the first time and became possible as a result of the reconstruction of the second runway and the installation of new lighting and radio equipment. The length of the runway was also increased, which made it possible to expand the capabilities of the airfield to receive and service aircraft of various classes.
At present, all types of aircraft in service with the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, including heavy aircraft, can fly from the Hmeymim Air Base.”
While the Russian MoD said the “long-range bombers will return to permanent airfields in the Russian Federation after completing training tasks,” the training would give them operational experience in the highly contested Mediterranean, where U.S., French and Israeli naval and air forces are all contesting to retain or expand their influence.
During the Syrian civil war 5 years ago, Russia had struck positions of the Islamic terrorist group, ISIS with Kalibr cruise missiles from its Tu-22M3 and other long-range bombers flying hundreds of miles away over the Black Sea. But basing them at Hmeymim in Syria would expand their operational range bringing virtually the whole of the Mediterranean within their sights.
The bombers’ deployment marks the first time since the Cold War t that Moscow has stationed heavy bombers in the region.
The Hmeymim Air Base is defended by S-400 air defense systems in addition to anti-drone and low-altitude missile defense systems. In 2018, it fended off an attack by a drone swarm launched by pro-U.S. Syrian groups.
The Tupolev Tu-22M3, code-named Backfire by NATO, is capable of carrying nuclear weapons and has a range exceeding 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles).
The Kh-32 misssile is armed with a 500 kg missile and has a range of 600-1000 km. Such range allows the bomber to launch the missile without entering hostile air defense zone. The Kh-32 can reach top speed of over Mach 4 (4 939 km/h) in its terminal phase. It can outrun a number of interceptor missiles, such as U.S.-made SM-6.