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The Tupolev Tu-160 supersonic heavy strategic bomber. Twitter

Two Tu-160 ‘White Swans’ create a stir in Pretoria

On Wednesday 23 October, two Russian strategic Tupolev Tu-160 bombers arrived in South Africa after a record flight of more than 11 000 kilometers that lasted over 13 hours.

Published: October 29, 2019, 6:51 am

    The two aircraft, accompanied by an Antonov An-124, an Ilyushin Il-62 and a series of IL-78 tankers, landed on the military airport of Waterkloof, near the administrative capital Pretoria, after taking off from Engels base, near the city of Saratov, in the homonymous oblast, which is the seat of the 121st heavy bomber regiment of the guards operating with the last 14 Tu-160 aircraft remaining in the Vks (Vozdušno-Kosmičeskie Sily), the Russian aerospace forces.

    According to the command of the Russian air force, the transfer flight took place in the airspace over the waters of the Caspian Sea and the Arabian Sea, as well as the Indian Ocean. In the last phase, Russian aircraft were escorted by Jas-39 South African fighters.

    The group was initially scheduled to arrive on the 22nd, but unidentified issues delayed the arrival by 24 hours.

    The “courtesy visit” marks the first time that Russian bombers land in an African country. In particular, as recalled by Darren Olivier, an expert in the Defense sector and director of the African Defense Review, this visit had been planned for 2016, coinciding with the Africa Aerospace and Defense event, but at the last minute it was postponed indefinitely, probably due to the use of the Tu-160s in the bombing campaign in Syria.

    The diplomatic journey of Russian strategic bombers coincided with the opening, in Sochi on the Black Sea, of the first Russian-African summit as President Putin hopes to expand Russia’s influence throughout Africa.

    “The summit meeting is aimed at deepening the friendly relations between the Russian Federation and the countries of the African continent both bilaterally and multilaterally; forging closer collaborations on regional and international problems of common interest” the South African presidency noted regarding Pretoria’s participation in the Sochi event.

    “South Africa’s participation in the summit is in line with the pillars of our foreign policy which are aimed at encouraging North-South cooperation in various technical fields as well as in economic development”, concluded the presidency note.

    The South African Defense Ministry’s statement pointed out that this visit was “in accordance with the agreements stipulated between the respective defense ministers in June 1995 that the Russian air force made the visit to South Africa”.

    The two planes left on 27 October, but collaboration has been ongoing since the entry of South Africa into the BRICS (2018), a body that sees Russia, Brazil, India, China, South Africa and now Turkey as an alternative to the international monetary and economic system of the IMF.

    For Russia the visit of the Tu-160 bombers, which are currently being modernized, has a double objective in South Africa: first of all it is the demonstration to the world of the ability of Russian strategic forces to conduct military operations in theaters very far from their national territory.

    Russia, for some years now and with increasing frequency, has been conducting long patrolling missions that see the use of Tu-160 bombers “Blackjack”, Tu-95MS “Bear” and Tu-142 “Bear F” in different global theaters: from the Atlantic, where the Russian bombers have resumed cruises to probe the defenses of NATO on the northern front, up to the Far East, in the Pacific, where at almost monthly intervals and with the novelty of Chinese participation, they fly around to the Japanese archipelago and to South Korea, passing, of course, the Arctic region which has returned to the center of Moscow’s strategic policy.

    Not long ago, a couple of Tupolev Tu-160s landed in Venezuela to strengthen ties between Moscow and Caracas and above all to open up the possibility of obtaining a semi-permanent base in that sector, which became crucial precisely because of the tensions that exist between the US and Venzuela.

    According to anti-Russian journalist Simon Allison, Russia wanted to intimidate Pretoria.

    Russia is has been stepping up the renewal of its Armed Forces (hypersonic missiles, laser weapons, fifth and soon-to-be sixth-generation airplanes, HGV warheads) which has been worrying Washington because in some sectors, especially in the hypersonic field, it is currently behind Moscow and Beijing.

    At a diplomatic level, these “courtesy visits” therefore become important for military cooperation with a view to the sale of arms. Also, it is no secret that Russia is actively working for the sale and construction of technology in the field of atomic energy in various developing countries. The African continent therefore represents a new frontier for Moscow, which however has to deal with Chinese competition, already rooted in Africa for at least two decades.

    It is clear, therefore, that the importance of maintaining close military ties is an effective instrument of Moscow’s foreign policy. At the end of November, Russia will participate in a joint naval exercise with the Chinese and South African Navy, and Pretoria could be placing orders for the purchase of air defense systems such as the S-400 or for some fighter-bomber such as those of the Su-30/35 family or the new Mig-35.

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