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Russian bombers to fire cruise missiles over Arctic

Irish Independent | September 4, 2007

President Vladimir Putin flexed Russia's military muscles once again yesterday when his government said that 12 strategic bombers would practise firing cruise missiles during a show-of-strength exercise over the Arctic.

The giant Tupolev 95 aircraft were due to take off from five air bases, including one near the Bering Straits, separating Russia from Alaska.

Mr Putin has made great efforts to extend Russian influence over the Arctic, which may have untapped mineral wealth. Russia has dispatched a scientific expedition to the polar ice-cap and last month a submarine dropped the national flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole.

Monday's launch of a "tactical exercise" by the Russian air force, which is due to last for 48 hours, was the Kremlin's latest attempt to send a message of national resurgence.

Symbolic

But there was a symbolic ring to the occasion. The Tu-95 aircraft, which Nato codenames the 'Bear,' is an obsolescent model. Powered by four turbo-prop engines, the Bear is packed with antiquated technology dating from its first flight 53 years ago.

The long-range aircraft was originally designed to compete with the American B-29 Superfortress -- the Second World War bomber responsible for dropping the atomic bomb in 1945.

Today, the Bear is designed to steer clear of hostile air space and fire cruise missiles at targets hundreds of miles away.

This "stand off" role is the only way the Bear can be used as a strike aircraft because the lumbering, propeller-driven giant cannot defend itself against even the weakest air forces.

The only weapons the Bear carries for its own safety are machine guns mounted on rotating turrets of the kind that German bombers used against Spitfires during the Battle of Britain 67 years ago.

Until this year, Russia's armed forces were in such a parlous state that they could not even conduct strategic patrols with Bears.

The Russian air force halted this regular feature of the Cold War in 1992 in order to save money.

Mr Putin's resumption of strategic patrols -- even with obsolescent aircraft -- has echoes of the Cold War when Soviet bombers and Nato fighters regularly fenced over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Last month, a Bear ventured towards British air space and was intercepted by two Eurofighter Typhoons, which belonged to the RAF.

Parliamentary elections will take place in Russia in December and a new president will succeed Mr Putin next year. The Kremlin's increasingly assertive foreign policy is designed to show the Russian people that their country is a global player once again.

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