Sunday, March 15, 2009

Russia weighs Cuba, Venezuela bases for bombers

Russia could use bases for its strategic bombers on the doorstep of the United States in Cuba and Venezuela to underpin long-distance patrols in the region, a senior air force officer said Saturday.

"This is possible in Cuba," General Anatoly Zhikharev, chief of the Russian air force's strategic aviation staff, told the Interfax-AVN military news agency.

The comments were the latest signal that Moscow intends to project its military capability in far-flung corners of the globe despite a tight defence budget and hardware that experts consider in many respects outdated.

Zhikharev said Cuba had a several air bases equipped with the long runways needed by the heavy bombers and said the facilities there were "entirely acceptable" for use by the Russian aircraft during long-distance patrols.

"If the will of the two states is there, the political will, then we are prepared to fly there", the agency quoted Zhikharev as saying.

The general also said that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had offered to let Russian strategic bombers use a military airfield on La Orchila island, a military base off the west coast of the country.

"Yes, there has been such a proposal from the Venezuelan president," Zhikharev said.

"If a relevant political decision is made, this is possible," he added.

Russia resumed patrols by its long-distance strategic bombers in August 2007 after a 15-year hiatus, noting at the time that it was mirroring the United States which never suspended its global bomber patrols after the Cold War.

Last year, Russia temporarily based a pair of Tu-160 bombers at an airbase in Venezuela in a carefully-choreographed display of force regarded by as a warning message to the United States.

A Russian flotilla led by the nuclear-powered cruiser Peter the Great also joined Venezuelan navy vessels for manoeuvres in the Caribbean late last year, timed to coincide with a visit to the region by President Dmitry Medvedev.

Last July however, a top US air force officer warned that Russia would cross "a red line" if it were to base nuclear capable bombers in Cuba.

"If they did, I think we should stand strong and indicate that is something that crosses a threshold, crosses a red line for the United States of America," said General Norton Schwartz said on July 23.

The Interfax report said there were three types of Russian aircraft capable of long-distance bomber patrols: The Tu-95MS, the Tu-160 and the Tu-22.

It was Tu-160 strategic bombers that were sent to Venezuela for temporary basing last year. Each aircraft of this type is capable of carrying 12 cruise missiles that can be fitted with nuclear warheads.

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