To the delight of aircraft spotters and the confusion of most neutral observers, two of the Russian Air Force’s (VVS) Tupolev Tu-160 long-range supersonic strategic bombers touched down at Air Force Base Waterkloof on 25 October. 

TU-160 visits outside of Russia are so extraordinarily rare that South Africa is only the second country outside of Russia (or the USSR) to be visited by these secretive aircraft in their entire operational history. The other is Venezuela, which has had three visits since 2015.

So what does this mean? Why South Africa, why now?

First we must understand why Russia is so protective of these aircraft. The Tu-160, named ‘White Swan’ (Белый лебедь) but given the NATO reporting name of ‘Blackjack’, is the world’s heaviest and fastest operational bomber, weighing in at a whopping 275,000 kg max takeoff weight and capable of reaching Mach 2.05 in level flight. It has a range of around 12,000 km when cruising at Mach 0.77, or an estimated 2,000 km range at supersonic speeds. To be able to achieve those performance figures without compromising landing and takeoff speeds or distances, the Tu-160 is fitted with the world’s largest swing-wing, along with full-span leading edge slats, double-slotted flaps and a sophisticated fly-by-wire system to control it all.

It is, undoubtedly, an engineering marvel. While visually it bears a close resemblance to the American B-1B, the Tu-160 is larger and faster and has a somewhat different purpose as a strategic standoff missile platform rather than as a direct bomber. 

Also, unlike the B-1B, the Tu-160 has retained its nuclear launch role and 

capability. To this end the Tu-160 can carry 12 Kh-55-type long-range air-launched cruise missiles on two internal rotary launchers, including the nuclear-tipped Kh-55SM and Kh-102 and the conventional Kh-555 and Kh-101. This gives it a remarkable long-range strike capability, especially as the Kh-101 and Kh-102 are ‘stealthy’ low-observable missiles capable of flying over 3,000 km and achieving high terminal navigation accuracy.

The 16 aircraft still in service have received a number of upgrades over the years, mostly improving their communication, navigation and onboard electronic warfare self-protection systems. They will be superseded by, and upgraded to, a new Tu-160M2 standard over the next decade, featuring greater use of low-observability technologies and substantial improvements in operational range, avionics and defensive systems.

It’s little wonder that it’s the crown jewel of the VVS and of the overarching Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS). This is the aircraft on which Russia most depends to give effect to its nuclear deterrent, in a way both the first and last line of defence in any nuclear war. It is absolutely crucial for the effectiveness of that deterrent that Western countries do not learn too much about the inner workings of the aircraft, which is in no small part why Russia has been reluctant to show it off around the world. 

By the same token, sending a pair of them halfway around the world to South Africa is a powerful signal. Especially as it coincides with another major first in Exercise Mosi, a naval exercise to be held between South Africa, China, and Russia off Simon’s Town at the end of November and reported to include at least one Slava-class cruiser. That, too, is unprecedented.

At first glance the sudden surge of attention appears inexplicable, as the government of South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa has neither pursued a particularly pro-Russian foreign policy nor actively prioritised Russian interests in the country (in sharp contrast to his predecessor), nor have there been any substantial recent shifts in that position. The country is certainly on friendly terms with Russia, but not in the same way as Venezuela has been.

However, it can be explained as a combination of Russia’s own near-term foreign policy goals as well as the growing military ties between the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

During the administration of Jacob Zuma, South Africa prioritised the ‘R’ of BRICS, establishing a range of co-operative measures that were far in excess of those pursued with other BRICS members. This included a notorious ‘nuclear deal’ reportedly locking South Africa into a dependent partnership with Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear energy corporation, for nuclear power plants as well as personal medical treatment for Zuma after allegations of poisoning. 

The SANDF in turn, likely acting at ministerial direction, ramped up co-operation with its Russian counterpart to the point where it acquired a top secret Russian radar surveillance satellite and sent aircrew and other core technical personnel to Moscow for training. The Tu-160 visit in fact, was first planned for late 2016 at the height of this warming of relations, before being postponed owing to aircraft availability issues. Had it occurred then, it may have coincided with that year’s Africa Aerospace and Defence expo, although that was never confirmed.

All indications are that even though the Ramaphosa administration’s approach to Russia is cooler than that of its predecessor, the military-level relationship has remained strong. None of the training initiatives has slowed down or stopped and senior SANDF officers have been known to express their desire to grow even closer to the Russian military in recent months. Thus actions such as the bomber visit and the planned naval exercise find a receptive partner amongst the SANDF’s top brass. 

That being said, there are no signs that this is anything other than a personal and political alignment, or that it may lead to the acquisition of Russian equipment or the adoption of Russian doctrine or logistical standards. 

For its part Russia has made growing its economic, political, and military influence in Africa a key part of its foreign policy agenda. Since 2014 its level of engagement with African countries has grown rapidly, resulting in the signing of military and economic co-operation agreements with over 20 African countries, forgiving Soviet-era debt worth around US$20 billion (by its own claim) and a host of bilateral meetings and visits. This has culminated in the inaugural Russia-Africa summit held during October in Sochi, which was attended by nearly 50 African heads of government.

From a diplomatic perspective, Russia needs to influence Africa’s votes at the United Nations and other multilateral bodies, so it sustains good relations with most of the continent while paying special attention to regional powers like South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Egypt. It needs new markets and trade partners to offset the effects of American and European sanctions imposed since its annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. 

On top of that, fully one third of its US$55 billion arms export order book is accounted for by African countries, but it risks losing that market to China, whose  arms exports have tended to follow its initial economic and industrial programmes in places like Rwanda. And it has a strategic interest in ensuring the United States, European Union, and China do not gain too much benefit from their own African engagements.

Above and beyond all other reasons, the Tu-160 deployment was an impressive demonstration of Russia’s strategic capabilities and a useful training exercise for its Tu-160 crews. The two aircraft, RF-94102 ‘02 Red’/‘Vasilii Reshetnikov’ and RF-94112 ‘04 Red’/‘Ivan Yarygin’, flew a mammoth 13 hour mission on a route that took it out over the Indian Ocean and away from land for nearly the entire flight, after refuelling mid-air from an Il-78 tanker over the Caspian Sea. They were supported by an An-124 (RF-82034) and Il-62M (RA-86498) which had arrived at AFB Waterkloof a day or two earlier with the support teams and various diplomats, including the head of VVS Long Range Aviation, Lt General Sergey Kobylash.

Despite a 24 hour delay caused first by a technical issue and then, reportedly, adverse weather, the VVS was satisfied with the outcome as it proved the unit’s ability to stage to an unfamiliar airfield far from home base.

Given this, we should expect Russian military and diplomatic engagements on the African continent to remain strong. South Africa is still Africa’s most important diplomatic voice at the United Nations. So as long as its government and military are receptive Russia will seek to gain influence through means like joint exercises and showy demonstrations, as well as diplomatic and economic overtures. In fact, there are strong rumours that a Tupolev Tu-95, its Tu-142 maritime patrol variant, may visit South Africa as part of Exercise Mosi largely as a result of Russia’s perception of the Tu-160 visit’s success.

However, strong obstacles to closer integration remain. The South African military does not operate any Russian equipment and is unlikely to do in the near future, both because of low acquisition budgets and its adoption of a NATO-based logistics system. Mutual distrust has also not yet been overcome. It was notable that when the Tu-160s visited they were escorted by Hawk jet trainers rather than the South African Air Force’s Gripen fighter jets, reportedly owing to concerns over electronic intelligence gathering. Similarly the visit of the Severomorsk task group in 2017 saw both sides observing electronic emissions control protocols.

Hopefully this relationship will be managed maturely. There is nothing wrong with the SANDF growing closer to and learning from its Russian counterparts, provided that does not jeopardise the invaluable relationship it already has with Western armed forces. At the same time the new willingness of Russia to send forces to South Africa for joint exercises can only improve the level of experience and quality of training for SANDF personnel.

And it would certainly be great for aircraft spotters.