Recent flights by Russian strategic long-range bombers over the besieged city of Mariupol have drawn significant media attention, however they have been flying strike missions since the outbreak of war in Ukraine.
On April the 15th, the Ukrainian MoD reported that for the first time during the war, Russian Tu-22M Backfire long-range strategic bombers had been utilised over the besieged city of Mariupol. Ukrainian officials previously reported that 90% of buildings in Mariupol had been damaged or destroyed during the war meaning all this destruction had been caused without the use of bomber aircraft.
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Russian fighter aircraft can carry many of the same munitions that bombers such as the Tu-22M can carry but bomber aircraft have a much higher payload and range.
However, the Tu-22Ms if they have been operating from their home bases in Russia, have only had to fly approximately 800km to Mariupol, around a third of their combat range. Fighter aircraft stationed closer to Ukraine have been able to conduct similar bombing missions and missile launches for the majority of the war in Eastern Ukraine and further West.
The Tu-22M strategic bombers reportedly dropped large, unguided bombs on the Azovstal Steel Plant where civilians and the remaining Ukrainian soldiers are besieged and sheltering in it’s extensive Cold War era tunnel complex. While the use of unguided munitions may have been sufficient in this scenario, due to the plant being spread across multiple kilometres, it once again highlights the issues Russia faces due to it’s limited guided munitions stockpiles. This is an issue not just affecting the Russian Air Force but also, it’s Army who have recently resorted to using elderly Tochka missiles in Ukraine.
Guided munitions allow aircraft to release their payload at higher altitudes and at greater distances from the target and due to the persisting surface to air missile threat from Ukraine, Russian forces have been regularly utilising air-launched missiles allowing them to remain in Russian airspace and relative safety during launch. However, their limited stockpiles of advanced weaponry has meant unguided bombs, many first introduced during the early Cold War, have been widely employed.
These unguided munitions are imprecise and require aircraft to fly at lower altitudes to hit specific targets putting them in range of MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defence Systems), thousands of which have been distributed among Ukrainian defenders. Deploying these munitions from higher altitudes, outside of effective MANPADS range, increases the spread of these weapons, causing unintended damage and increasing the risk to civilians.
On March 5th as Russian forces advanced on Mykolaiv and Russian landing ships assembled in the Black Sea, Odessa and Mykolaiv were reportedly targeted by Tu-22M bombers. The appearance of long-range bombers over Ukrainian cities appears to be designed to spread fear among the population and reduce morale and resolve as a result of the destruction and losses, rather than introducing a specific capability as relatively small ranges are involved and only a handful of bombs are dropped during most strikes, something fighter aircraft are also capable of conducting and have been doing. An example of this would be the Tu-22M bomber strike on the Azovstal Plant, which was followed days later by a similar strike by Su-34 fighters which was publicised by the Russian MoD.
While several bomber strikes have hit military or industrial targets, many more have hit residential areas causing panic among residents and killing, injuring and displacing civilians. The UK Foreign Secretary said on the 21st April that Russian bombers have intentionally dropped munitions on “civilian infrastructure, including civil government buildings, hospitals, schools and transportation nodes.”
The increased activity of strategic bomber over Ukraine, is likely also linked to the slow progression of the campaign so far. Russian commanders had expected a rapid campaign with limited Ukrainian resistance, with police units forming part of the invasion force and some soldiers reportedly travelling with parade uniforms. Mariupol in particular, has endured fighting for weeks and the presence of bombers over the city is likely intended as a show of force as Ukrainian forces continue to refuse opportunities to surrender.
We can expect to see a further increase in Russian long-range strategic bomber activity over Ukraine, especially in the east of the country in the lead up to the May 9th Victory Day Parade as Russia attempts to regain the strategic initiative after repeated poor performance so far. Bomber aircraft will be a key part of this as an asset to cause fear and destruction.