Jane's Defense Weekly reports that the Russians are considering restarting production of the Tupolev Tu-16 Blackjack bomber, which I would guess means that the Russians are going to restart production of the Tupolev Tu-16 Blackjack bomber. Jane's is a very authoritative source and rarely misses on stuff like this, and in this case, they are quoting the Russian Defense Minister:
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has authorised a study to asses restarting production of the Tupolev Tu-160 'Blackjack' supersonic strategic bomber aircraft.The Blackjack is a supersonic, nuclear-capable bomber originally produced in the 1980s. There have been upgrades since then, with the most modern version, the Tu-160M, apparently what will go back into production if the Russians decide to do that. Most of the 16 Tu-160s in the Russian inventory now are being upgraded to the Tu-160M version.
"We shall start to solve problems related not only to maintenance and modernisation of Long-range Aviation's (LRA) aircraft fleet, but also to Tu-160 production," Shoigu said during a visit to the S. Gorbunov Kazan aircraft plant, where the aircraft were built. He held a working session at the plant devoted to the recovery and support of the LRA fleet.
By the way, this is a Blackjack:
This is an American B-1B, a bomber with a similar capability and role:
Wonder where the Russians got the idea? Yeah, me neither.
The question then becomes, even if the Russians put the Blackjack back into production, does that matter. This guy says no:
So what does this mean to the strategic balance between the United States and the Russian Federation in 2015? In reality, it means absolutely nothing in military terms. As a political signal, however, Shoigu’s announcement is just the latest in a series of provocations. No American response is required and none would matter.The author goes on to argue that the limited number of nuclear warheads the U.S. and the Russians have under the START II treaty make a decisive first strike impossible: not enough firepower. I think he's missing a couple of important boats, any one of which could take us to a troubling destination.
The Blackjack, assuming the Russians even manage to build any more of them, is a perfectly capable nuclear bomber that, in time of war, would fold back its swan-like wings and dart toward its targets at top speed. Once in range, it would launch cruise missiles that would make the last part of their journey low and slow under enemy radar. This is pretty much what all bombers would do in a nuclear war. (The one major advantage of the American B-2 is that it could penetrate farther into enemy airspace with less chance of detection.)
To worry about the extra capability of additional Blackjacks, however, requires believing that nuclear bombers matter at all in 2015. During the Cold War, when a “triad” of land, air and sea weapons were the guarantee against a massive surprise attack, both sides invested in various tripartite combinations of ICBMs, sea-launched weapons and bombers. In a massive first-strike, at least some of these weapons would survive and destroy the aggressor, which is why no one could contemplate doing it. (The Soviets likely did not contemplate it very seriously in any case. There’s an interesting declassified CIA report from 1973 you can read here.)
Today, no one seriously worries that the Russians or the Americans will, or can, execute a disabling first strike against the other. A “BOOB,” or “Bolt-Out-Of-the-Blue,” is neither politically likely, nor militarily feasible. The days when command and control, satellites and even strategic delivery systems themselves were all far more shaky are long gone. The ideological competition between two global systems, in which one would seek to destroy the other as rapidly as possible, is also over.
First, the argument that bombers no longer matter presupposes how they would be used. The U.S. is not the only possible target: with more Blackjacks, Western Europe and our NATO allies are only minutes away from where Blackjacks could launch cruise missiles. Reaction time for Europe would be considerably less than against a similar attack against the U.S., and our NATO friends are woefully unprepared for such an eventuality. What would the U.S. do then, when its NATO mutual defense obligations are triggered. Under this president, the answer is easy: issue a harshly worded statement and then do nothing.
Second, the Blackjack is nuclear-capable, not nuclear-only. Chemical and biological weapons also could be used, as could conventional munitions. An enhance Russian Blackjack fleet would put Europe at risk of an ever-more aggressive Russia. The West's tepid response to Russia invading Ukraine -- pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists my ass, those are Russian troops in Ukraine. Do you really thing a bunch of average-schmuck Ukrainians who like Russia suddenly know how to use modern artillery, tanks, anti-aircraft weapons and attack aircraft? Yeah, right. -- makes Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is bent on restoring the Soviet empire, more certain that the West in general and the U.S. in particular will do not one fucking thing of consequence to stop them. If I am a Baltic state, formerly under Soviet control and a stated object of Russian aggression, I am a seriously nervous sumbitch already, and this kind of news does not make me feel better.
Tom Nichols, the author of the piece, is Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College and an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School. I assume this means he is a smart guy who people who matter listen to. That doesn't mean he isn't wrong. After all, his conclusion is this:
Our reaction to Russia’s nuclear threats should be no reaction at all, other than to affirm our ability to defend ourselves—and the most populous, wealthy and powerful alliance in human history—as the mature and confident superpower that we are.Of course, I first argue that he is misreading this as a purely nuclear threat. Perhaps more importantly though is his assumption that our current president is willing to defend us or our allies "as the mature and confident superpower that we are." Recent history under this president has shown the exact opposite to be true. We're fucked.