Bomber diplomacy: visit of two Russian Tu-160s in South Africa

Vladislav Sinelnikov

An air group of the Russian Aerospace Forces paid an exceptional visit to South Africa. During their stay, two Russian Tu-160M strategic bombers conducted a nighttime training flight over the Indian Ocean.

On October 25, 2019, an air group composed of the two Russian bombers as well as an Il-62 and an An-124 Ruslan military transport aircraft, paid an unprecedented visit to South Africa. The two bombers took off from Engels Air Force Base near Saratov, Russia, the sole base of operation of the Tupolev Tu-160, and landed in Waterkloof Air Force Base, near Pretoria, after twelve hours, demonstrating the aircraft’s range capability. The visit coincided with the organization of the first Russia–Africa Economic Forum in Sochi, Russia.

The bombers took off from Waterkloof Air Force Base for a three hours night flight off the coast of South Africa, before landing in Johannesburg.  “Within the framework of the international visit of the Aerospace Forces air group to the Republic of South Africa, the Tu-160 strategic missile carriers carried out a flight in the air over the Indian Ocean,” said the Russian ministry of defense quoted by TASS, adding that “the flight was carried out in strict accordance with international rules for the use of airspace”. The goal of the flight was to test the aircraft in unfamiliar conditions, as it was the first time they operated above the Indian Ocean.



But strategic bombers are also diplomatic weapons and the flight could easily be seen as a message addressed to the United States. For 43 years, the U.S. Navy and Air Force have been keeping a presence in the Indian Ocean thanks to their base of Diego Garcia, leased from the United Kingdom. During the Iraq War in 2003, B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers launched their attacks from the small island. By operating two nuclear-capable Tu-160 bombers for the first time in Africa, Russia made a concrete display of the strategic partnerships it is creating on the continent and the extent of its power projection capabilities, even on the U.S.’ historical turf.

A similar air group was dispatched to Venezuela in December 2018, for a joint exercise to test the interoperability of the air forces of the two countries. At the time, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defined the presence of the two nuclear-capable bombers as “two corrupt governments squandering public funds, and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer”.


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