The Cold War backstory of Russia’s supersonic ‘Backfire’ bomber

One of Russia's Tu-22M bombers was reportedly destroyed by a Ukrainian drone. Here's what to know about the aircraft.
tu-22m backfire
A TU-22M Backfire seen in 2010. Wojtek Laski/Getty Images

On August 19, a Russian Tu-22M bomber was reportedly destroyed while it was parked in an airfield in northwestern Russia. Russia’s defense ministry, while downplaying the damage to the bomber, stated that it was hit by a copter-style drone. Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Directorate (GUR) has since claimed credit for the attack. The targeted bomber itself, a venerable Cold War design, has a long history, with its use against Ukraine only the latest chapter.

Evidence of the attack comes from multiple sources. The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence has been watching and offering public commentary on the war in Ukraine ever since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, and on August 22 the Ministry tweeted that the “Tu-22M3 BACKFIRE medium bomber of Russia’s Long Range Aviation [LRA] was highly likely destroyed at Soltsky-2 Airbase in Novgorod Oblast, 650 km away from Ukraine’s border.” (The Tu-22M’s NATO designation, or the term used by NATO countries to distinguish between Soviet-made planes, is “Backfire.”)

That strike, just over 400 miles away from Ukraine, is beyond the range of most Ukrainian weapons, unless someone were nearby to launch a close-in attack. It also illustrates the range that Russia’s bombers have been able to cover in order to attack people and places in Ukraine.

As the BBC notes, Russia has a fleet of 60 Tu-22M bombers, meaning the country can absorb the loss of one bomber while still operating at regular effectiveness. Nevertheless, photographic and satellite evidence indicate that despite claims from the Russian military otherwise, the bomber was almost certainly a complete loss. 

“Aside from showing the burned aircraft, the satellite images also show that Russia has since evacuated all other Backfires that had been parked at Soltsy-2” on August 16, reports The War Zone. (The War Zone is owned by Recurrent Ventures, PopSci’s parent company.) While the attack did not destroy all 10 bombers visible on satellite photography on August 16, it did destroy one, and likely forced the others to further interior air bases for safekeeping. 

Cold War origins

The Tu-22M is the second class of bomber under the Tu-22 name. The original Tu-22, named “Blinder” by NATO, was an early Cold War supersonic bomber, the first bomber capable of dashes at speeds faster than the speed of sound used by the Soviet Union. The design of the Blinder was underwhelming, with limited range and performance.  While the bomber saw use in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, in wars against foes with anti-aircraft missiles, Tu-22 Blinders were regularly shot down. Ukraine, which inherited its military equipment from the USSR, had Tu-22 Blinders in its inventory in 2000, though the plane has long since been retired with one left as a literal museum piece.

Meanwhile, the Tu-22M, while borrowing that “Tu-22” designation, is a wholly different design, meant to fill the same role. The Tu-22M has variable-geometry swept wings, meaning it can have the wings spread out wide for more efficient flight at subsonic speed, while the wings can fold back for reduced drag when flying supersonic, something like US-made F-14s. The Tu-22M’s original mission was to destroy US bombers and airfields.

While the first flight of a Tu-22M took place in 1969, the bombers were built up gradually over the 1970s and 1980s. Tu-22Ms saw use in the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and were largely mothballed in the early 1990s, as Russia’s strategic picture changed following the dissolution of the USSR.

The aircraft functions as a conventional bomber, the role the Tu-22M took in Afghanistan and presently performs above Ukraine. It was also built to be capable of carrying nuclear weapons, including both nuclear bombs and nuclear-armed cruise missiles. 

“The mission of the bomber, peripheral attack or intercontinental attack, became one of the most fiercely contested intelligence debates of the Cold War,” reports the Federation of American Scientists. “The key variable was the estimate of the range of the aircraft. A series of competitive analyses to determine the range produced divergent results and failed to end the debate.” 

The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) initially assessed the Tu-22M’s range at up to 3,100 miles, while the CIA instead assumed 2,090 miles. Part of the complication is that the Tu-22M can be fitted with a probe to permit air refueling, though the probes are not permanently installed on the plane. Russian sources, since made public, attest to a range of 3,170 miles for the model that entered service in 1976, and 4,350 miles for the version that entered service in 1981. These ranges put the bomber, and its feared nuclear payload, squarely in the “intercontinental” range. Cruising speed for the Tu-22m is 560 mph, while maximum speed is 1,430 mph.

Modern warfare

Using the technology of the time, the Tu-22M is designed to evade defenses in two distinct ways. Supersonic speeds allow the bombers to strike fast and outpace missile interceptors. Subsonic flight, at low altitudes, is designed to let the bomber fly “below the radar,” or low enough to the ground that attempts to track it by radar would fail by getting extra feedback from the ground, confounding it. 

The first Tu-22M lost in combat occurred during Russia’s August 2008 five-day-long invasion of Georgia, the neighboring country in the Caucasus mountains bordering the Black Sea. While Russia handily bested its minuscule neighbor, the loss of any aircraft in combat was surprising. (The war ended with Russia’s military occupying and guaranteeing the breakaway of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two Georgian provinces.) 

At the time, the Russian military claimed that the Tu-22M lost was a reconnaissance variant. Former Russian air force chief Anatoly Kornukov told the Associated Press in 2008 that “Using the Tu-22 for a reconnaissance mission over Georgia was the same as using a microscope to drive nails.”

Above Ukraine in 2022, the Tu-22M was observed dumping unguided bombs on the then-Ukrainian held parts of Mauripol, the Black Sea city encircled by invading Russian forces as the military fought its way from the Donbas to Crimea. Carpet bombing is one of the oldest ways planes have been used in war, and because it does not deliver precision strikes, it is a reliable way to create swathes of indiscriminate desolation and brutality.

Beyond carpet bombing, the Tu-22M bombers were used as missile-launching platforms alongside other Russian bombers in the Long Range Aviation, part of the Russian Aerospace Forces. These bombers could hit targets deep from the frontlines, and importantly far from Ukrainian air defenses, by using their range and speed to launch anti-ship missiles against terrestrial targets, causing panic and destruction.

While capable of hitting targets at great range, a supersonic bomber built to penetrate Cold War air defenses being used to fire missiles and fly away is a far cry from its original purpose. Both Ukraine and Russia have struggled to establish control over the skies in the present conflict, leaving each side to adapt to new ways to ground the other’s aircraft.