ENGELS, Russia (Reuters) - Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Khabarov looks tired but surprisingly chipper for a man who has just piloted a nuclear-capable bomber jet on a 12-hour flight “somewhere over the Atlantic.”
He makes a post-flight inspection of his Tu-160 bomber and then reflects on the deadly payload he may one day be ordered to launch. “Pilots have a toast: ‘May our efficiency, knowledge, skills and performance capabilities never be used’,” he said.
Khabarov and his bomber squadron are the frontline troops in a campaign the Kremlin has been waging to project its newfound confidence into parts of the world where, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington has had unrivalled military dominance.
Two Tu-160 jets, known to Russian pilots as “White Swans” flew this month from this base on the Volga river to Venezuela, a mission calculated to show Russia was not afraid to flex its military muscles right under the nose of the United States.
That mission capped a 12-month period when Russian bombers resumed the Soviet-era practice of flying long-range patrols over the Atlantic, the North Pole and even Alaska — often shadowed by NATO fighter jets wary of the visitors’ intentions.
Military analysts disagree about what Russia is trying to achieve with the flights.
Some argue they are a threat to the security of Western states, others that they are just chest-thumping by a Kremlin anxious to please voters at home. Russian pilots, with tongues in cheek, call them friendship missions.
But what is clear is that the flights demonstrate the Russian bomber fleet — for many years a laughing stock which grounded its pilots for weeks at a time because there was no money for fuel — is once again a force to be reckoned with.
The long-range flights are “both a symbolic show of might and good will,” said Colonel Dmitry Kostyunin, deputy commander of the 22nd Air Division which has its base in Engels, a town named after Socialist philosopher Friedrich Engels.
Russia is usually wary of letting foreigners close to its military. In what may be a sign of its new-found confidence, the air force invited a group of foreign journalists to visit the base at Engels in early August.
The visit took place a day before Russia’s military mounted a massive counter-attack to defeat an attempt by Georgia to retake a separatist region — showing the world in the process the Kremlin will be resolute in defense of its interests.
About a dozen Tu-160 bombers, codenamed “Blackjacks” by NATO, stood near the vast runways, which were ringed by a concrete fence and checkpoints.
Brought into service in 1987 and since modernized, the Tu-160 is the world’s largest supersonic bomber, capable of carrying over 40 tonnes of conventional or nuclear munitions and with a range of up to 14,000 km (8,700 miles).
With refueling in the air, that enables the Tu-160 to reach virtually any point on the globe and return safely.
Nearby stood a dozen Tu-95MS “Bear” turboprop nuclear-capable bombers. At the other end of the sprawling airfield was a group of Tu-22M3 “Backfire” supersonic bombers — the same type as one that was shot down over Georgia.
In a display laid on for the visiting television cameras, a pair of Tu-160s flew low over the ground with a deafening roar from their turbofan engines.
The base was built soon after World War Two, and many of the buildings date from that period. The facilities are basic but orderly and well-maintained.
In the officers’ canteen, waiting staff serve the pilots meals of salted cabbage, soup, meat and potatoes at linen-covered tables overlooked by a huge mural of a Soviet marshal, his chest covered in medals.
The canteen is decorated with flowers, placed in bomb casings that have been sawn in two to create vases.
Most of the servicemen live with their families in accommodation on their base, and by the modest standards of the Russian military, they are reasonably well-off.
One officer told reporters his monthly wage was 30,000 roubles ($1,200), or about twice as much as an officer of comparable rank would earn in the Russian army.
Colonel Kostyunin said things started to change for the better in August 2005 when Vladimir Putin, who at the time was Russian president and is now prime minister, took a flight on board a Tu-160 and test-fired a missile.
“After that symbolic event, the role of strategic aviation was considerably revised,” Kostyunin told reporters in the room where pilots are briefed before heading off on their missions.
“Some of our pilots now spend 100 hours and even more — up to 200 hours — in the air annually. But we still have a long way to go, because our U.S. colleagues fly up to 250 hours.”
He denied there was any aggressive intent behind the bomber flights. In most cases they carried dummy munitions, he said, and the crews have even struck a friendly rapport with the pilots of the NATO jets sent up to track them.
“Believe me, when a pilot looks a pilot in the eyes and gestures to him to say, ‘It’s all OK’, this makes them closer,” Kostyunin told the foreign reporters.
“We are for peace and friendship, and we would be glad to fly to see you on a regular, civilian airplane.”
(Editing by Sara Ledwith and Ralph Boulton)