India to use Tu-22M3 Supersonic Bombers to Hunt down PLAN Warships
India seems likely to acquire four Tupolev Tu-22M3 “Backfire” twin-engine strategic bombers from Russia and will probably use these long-range jets on maritime strike missions to attack warships with volleys of modern anti-ship missiles (ASMs), including India’s own BrahMos-A.
When they arrive in India, the Backfires will become the country’s first long-range strategic bombers. Indian media said these four variable-wing jets should be sufficient to deter China from further expansion in the Indian Ocean.
In December 2015, China announced it would build a naval base for its People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) on the Seychelles, an Indian Ocean nation off the east coast of Africa.
Indian military analysts said the only conceivable deployment for the Tu-22M3 is to attack PLAN warships in the Indian Ocean and in the South China Sea. The jets have a range of 6,800 km, allowing them to venture out to the South China Sea from Visakhapatnam, headquarters of the Indian Navy’s Eastern Naval Command. The distance to the Seychelles is 4,000 km.
Backfires from the Thanjavur Air Force Base in southern India armed with the BrahMos-A can hunt down and hit PLAN warships in the Indian Ocean. The BrahMos-A can be modified to carry a nuclear warhead.
Armed and dangerous
To be sure, the Backfire is a completely different species of aircraft compared with the IAF’s current fleet, and a doctrinal transplant would have to happen before the IAF brass can envision a role for a long-range strike bomber.
The Tu-22M is an extremely large aircraft flown by a four-man crew of a pilot, co-pilot, navigator and weapon systems operator. With its phenomenal combat range of 2400 km, and a blistering speed of over 2300 kph (faster than most jet fighters), the Tu-22M is ideal for targeting aircraft carriers and large ships. Russian tests reveal that when a shaped charge warhead weighing 1000 kg was used in the Kh-22 missile, the resulting hole measured 16 ft in diameter and 40 ft deep. Not even the largest US Navy CVNs can survive such an impact, and at the very least will be out of commission of months.
India might choose to arm the Tu-22M3 with the air launched version of its BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, the BrahMos-A, or with the Russian cruise missiles it’s designed to launch: the Raduga Kh-22 and the Raduga Kh-15.
The bomber is designed to take off from secure inland bases, be vectored towards Chinese aircraft carrier groups and fire its complement of up to six – often nuclear-tipped – cruise missiles from safe standoff distances.
The Backfire’s primary weapon is the supersonic Raduga Kh-22 cruise missile. In high-altitude mode, it climbs to the edge of space (89,000 ft) and makes a near hypersonic speed dive towards its target. In low-altitude mode, it climbs to 39,000 ft (higher than most commercial airliners) and makes a shallow dive at Mach 3.5, making the final approach at an altitude under 1600 ft.
The Kh-22 has a range of 600 km and a 1,000 kg warhead. This weapon can also be armed with a nuclear warhead. The smaller Kh-15 with its 150 kg warhead is the world’s fastest aircraft-launched missile.
Today’s Backfires are also equipped with the more advanced Kh-15. This missile climbs to an astounding 130,000 ft and then dives in on the target, accelerating to Mach 5, which makes it the world’s fastest aircraft-launched missile.
Since the IAF has at least 400 attack aircraft, including the Sukhoi Su-30MKI, MiG-29 and Mirage-2000, that have Pakistan sorted, deploying the Backfire against Pakistan would be a huge overkill. Using limited numbers against Chinese land targets would be suicidal as Beijing has a robust air defence network bolstered by the Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile and its Chinese knockoffs.
The Backfire’s only conceivable deployment in India is as a maritime strike bomber against People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) assets, especially in the backdrop of growing Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean.
Backfires operating from the Thanjavur Air Force Base in southern India – and armed with the 300 km range BrahMos – can comfortably strike naval assets up to Seychelles. They can also be used to target PLAN vessels operating in the South China Sea. The bomber’s ferry of 6800 km means it can reach Darwin, Australia, without aerial refuelling. Clearly, such an aircraft would be a huge force multiplier for India.
If the media reports about India wanting a limited number of just four Backfires are true, then it would suggest they would be deployed in a maritime – rather than strategic – strike role. The bombers are equipped to receive data directly from spy satellites monitoring the oceans. India, which has a constellation of ocean survey and spy satellites, can access real time satellite intelligence and despatch the Backfires on ship hunting missions. The bombers can also be guided by scout aircraft.
Russia currently uses its Tu-22M3s to bomb targets in Syria in support of the Syrian government. The jets rain down unguided “dumb bombs” on their targets, which the United States says are mostly resistance groups allied with it.