Russian Tu-160 strategic bombers arrive in South Africa

Two Russian Aerospace Forces Tupolev Tu-160 ‘Blackjack’ bombers touched down at Air Force Base Waterkloof on Wednesday in a groundbreaking visit to South Africa.

The aircraft arrived at approximately 16:30, later than expected due to a delayed takeoff in Russia due to bad weather. The aircraft were originally scheduled to arrive in South Africa on 22 October but were delayed by more than a day due to technical issues. They departed Engels, refuelled over the Caspian Sea and then headed 11 000 kilometres non-stop to South Africa.

When they entered South African airspace, the Tu-160s (registrations RF-94112 and RF-94102) were escorted by three South African Air Force (SAAF) Hawk Mk 120 Lead In Fighter-Trainers and a pair of Gripens, with the aircraft practicing interception and escort. The two Gripens landed at Waterkloof whilst the Hawks returned home.

Supporting the Tu-160 bombers and accompanying Russian delegation is an Antonov An-124 (registration RF-82034) cargo aircraft and an Ilyushin Il-62 (registration RA-86498) passenger jet, which arrived on the 22nd. Members of the Russian delegation met with their South African counterparts at the St Georges Hotel on Wednesday morning to discuss search and rescue, amongst others.

The SAAF’s deputy chief, Major General Innocent Buthelezi, said on Wednesday it was a privilege to host the Russian aircraft especially as it was the first time such bombers have landed in Africa. He said the visit was part of military-to-military cooperation between Russia and South Africa and looked forward to strengthening relations between the two defence forces.

Buthelezi explained that the visit emanated from a memorandum of understanding signed some time ago. In 1995 Russia and South Africa signed agreements on military technical co-operation and co-operation between their respective defence ministries. More recently, in August 2018 Russia signed a military technical co-operation agreement with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in South Africa.

Buthelezi said the unarmed Tu-160s flew to South Africa to show their operational capabilities, but it was also a chance for the South African Air Force to showcase its own capabilities.

Lieutenant General Sergei Kobylash, commander of Russia’s Long-Range Aviation, thanked the SAAF for the warm welcome after the 13 hour flight. He said the primary mission of the Tu-160 flight was to train crews on long-range missions and improve co-operation with the SAAF.