Amid sustained high tensions between Russia and the United States, and as U.S. forces, intelligence services and military contractors maintain a sizeable presence in Ukraine supporting the ongoing war effort against Moscow, the primary strategic bomber bases of both countries have suffered serious hindrances to their operations. On December 10 the sole stealth bomber unit in the United States Air Force was left non operational after one of the B-2 bombers at Whiteman Air Base was seriously damaged and caught fire in an accident, with all B-2s left unable to operate for 11 days. Cuts to the B-2 fleet from 120 to just 20 serial production airframes, combined with the aircraft’s very low availability rates and high maintenance needs, have generally limited its ability to seriously contribute to a major war effort. This has been a particularly serious issue since NATO deploys no other fully operational stealth aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons, with the much smaller F-35 stealth fighter still considered far from ready for high intensity combat while the older F-22, also fielded in very limited numbers, can only carry low diameter bombs for air to ground operations. The closure of Whiteman Air Force Base’s runway raised questions regarding how durable American’s stealth bomber strike capability would be in the event of war, with missile attacks by adversaries potentially able to cause far more disruption than the single B-2 crash did.
Following Whiteman’s 11 day runway closure, an incident at Engels Air Base in Russia’s Saratov region on December 25 saw reports emerge of blasts heard at the facility – prompting speculation of a possible strike by Ukraine or its allies. Located approximately 730km southeast of Moscow, the facility was previously struck by Ukrainian drones on December 5, with a further drone strike confirmed on December 26 causing three casualties. Although during the Soviet era the USSR’s prime strategic bombers were deployed in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, Engels has played a central role to the air arm of Russia’s strategic deterrent since the 1990s and hosts Tu-95 bombers that form the backbone of the fleet alongside the country’s sole operational unit of Tu-160s. The Tu-160 has a similarly elite status within Russia to the B-2, and similarly suffered deep cuts to production following the end of the Cold War – albeit due to Russia’s post 1994 economic collapse rather than to issues within the program itself.
The Tu-160 first entered service in 1986, and the fleet was initially expected to reach 100 aircraft. While the United States is set to replace the B-2 with the next generation B-21 from around 2030, the Tu-160 is set to continue to form the elite of Russia’s bomber fleet with 50 new Tu-160M airframes set to be produced the first of which is scheduled to join the fleet before 2023. Although the Tu-160 is currently widely considered the world’s most capable bomber, its status is set to be diminished by the B-21’s entry into service and by China’s development of a rival to the American aircraft under the H-20 program. Russia itself has struggled to develop a next generation bomber under the PAK DA program, which was a key factor in the decision to restart Tu-160 production. As both countries are set to field much larger fleets of high end bombers, Russia more quickly with Tu-160 serial production already underway and the U.S. later on with a more ambitious new aircraft, the vulnerability currently caused by concentration of B-2s and Tu-160s each at a single base is expected to diminish.