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Tu-22M BACKFIRE and Arms Control

When the new supersonic bomber appeared at the Kazan aircraft plant in 1969, it validated the long-held Air Force prediction of a new Soviet bomber. In 1971, the aircraft, now designated the Backfire, was noted in aerial refueling from a tanker near the test center of Ramenskoye, just east of Moscow. The mission of the bomber, peripheral attack or intercontinental attack, became one of the most fiercely contested intelligence debates of the Cold War. The key variable was the estimate of the range of the aircraft. A series of competitive analyses to determine the range produced divergent results and failed to end the debate.

The Tu-22M designation was used by the Soviets during SALT-2 arms control negotiations, creating the impression that the Backfire-A aircraft was a modification of the Tu-22 Blinder. This designation was adopted by the US State and Defense Departments, although some contended that the designation was deliberately deceptive, and intended to hide the performance of the Backfire. Other sources suggest the "deception" was internal, because this made it easier to get budgets approved. According to some sources, the Backfire-B/C production variants were believed to be designated Tu-26 by Russia, although this is disputed by many sources. At Tupolev the aircraft was designated the AM.

Tupolev claimed a radius of action of only 2,200km for the early model Backfires. The US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) initially had estimated the Backfire's unrefuelled combat radius at approximately 5,000 km, sufficient to pose a strategic threat to the United States, while the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimate was about 3,700 km. subsequently the DIA estimate was reduced to about 4,000 km, and the CIA estimate to 3,360-3,960 km.

The dominant view of the American intelligence community was that the Backfire was a peripheral attack weapon and would not play a significant role in a strategic air attack on the United States. This view was based on the Backfire's limited payload, modest self-defense capabilities, and anticipated difficulty in staging the aircraft from northern Siberian bases. The US lacked hard evidence that the Backfires ever rehearsed intercontinental strike missions. The Air Force estimate of range and intent argued that the Backfire could be used for intercontinental attack -- even if the aircraft flew one-way missions for an attack on the United States.

Although a significant number of Backfire bombers were targeted on US naval vessels, the Backfire was the focus of a hotly contested arms control debate that focused on failure to limit further modernization and production of Backfire fleet. Although the Backfire bomber had an exclusively theater mission, under certain circumstances, it could be used to strike targets in the United States. Arms control opponents contended that the United States left open a loophole the Soviets would eventually exploit. The United States stated that as it can be refueled in flight -- allowing it to reach the United States -- the Backfire was an intercontinental bomber and should be subject to the same restrictions as other strategic bombers. The Soviets consistently maintained that the Backfire was not a strategic bomber because of its non-intercontinental range.

During the SALT II process, the United States negotiating team obtained a statement from then-Soviet Premier Brezhnev that the Backfire's refueling capabilities would not be upgraded to allow them to function as intercontinental strategic bombers, and that the Soviets would only build 30 of these bombers per year. When the SALT-2 treaty was signed in 1979, the Soviets informed the USA that it would not equip the TU-22M bombers with air refueling devices. SALT II was not ratified, though subsequently the air refueling system was removed from all TU-22M.

According to press reports in the late 1980s, a defector stated that the Backfire regularly conducted exercises at intercontinental range, that this intercontinental range was greater than the Bison's, that the Backfire had a screw-in type refueling probe, that this screw-in refueling probe was stockpiled for every Backfire at all bomber bases, and that the Soviets had an active program of camouflage, concealment, and deception to mislead the West about the intercontinental range capability of the Backfire.

According to press reports, the Soviets tested long range ALCM's on the Backfire in the late 1970's. The CIA in 1987 made the unclassified judgment that it would consider Backfires as ALCM-carriers in the event of confirmed Soviet breakout from SALT II. The CIA's rationale for their judgment was that in the absence of SALT II constraints, the Soviets would use the ALCM-capable Backfire to attack the United States.

The Defense Department publication Soviet Military Power published in March, 1983, stated on page 26 that: "The Soviets are developing at least one long-range air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) with a range of some 3,000 kilometers. Carried by the Backfire, the Blackjack, and possibly the Bear, it would provide the Soviets with greatly improved capabilities for low-level and standoff attack in both theater and intercontinental operations."DIA stated in its unclassified February 1990 Soviet Force Structure Summary publication on page 6 that: `The Backfire has an intercontinental strike capability when equipped with a refueling probe.'

The US proposed to the Soviets that they sign a politically binding declaration outside of START, which would commit them to: (1) not give the Backfire an intercontinental capability by air-to-air refueling or by any other means; (2) deploy no more than 400 Backfire; and (3) include all Backfire -- including naval Backfire--in the Conventional Forces in Europe [CFE] aircraft limits.

The Soviet Backfire bomber is not constrained by the START I Treaty. However, the Soviet side made a politically binding declaration on 31 July 1991. The Soviet side declared as part of the START I negotiations that it would not give the Tu-22M airplane the capability of operating at intercontinental distances in any manner, including by in-flight refueling. The Soviet Union stated that it would not have more than 300 Tu-22M airplanes at any one time, not including naval Tu-22M airplanes, and that the number of naval Tu-22M airplanes would not exceed 200. In view of the fact that there must be no constraints in the START Treaty on arms that are not strategic offensive arms, Tu-22M airplanes would thus not be subjected to that Treaty.



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