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Russian Tu-22M3 strategic bomber reportedly downed: Experts' insights on plausibility

Russian Tu-22M3 strategic bomber reportedly downed: Experts' insights on plausibility Russian aircraft Tu-22M3 (Photo: Russian media)

Amidst mass rocket attacks on Ukraine on December 29, information emerged about the alleged downing of a Russian Tu-22M3 strategic bomber over the Kursk region (Russia). Currently, there are no official confirmations.

RBC-Ukraine investigated the feasibility of downing such an aircraft over Russian territory.

In preparing the material, Ukrainian Telegram channels' publications, comments from defense sources, and insights from military experts Oleksandr Kovalenko and Oleksandr Musiienko were used.

Online discussions

Several Ukrainian Telegram channels reported a possible strike on the aircraft. According to their data, the aircraft suddenly disappeared from radars.

Journalist Andrii Tsaplienko posted a screenshot, possibly from one of the Russian channels.

"Information has emerged about the downing of a Tu-22M3, which had just launched missiles at Ukraine. It presumably belongs to the 52nd Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment, which has killed civilians in Kremenchuk, Uman, and Dnipro - we're verifying," he wrote.

The Russian Telegram channel Fighterbomber, which usually reports aircraft losses among the first, is silent on the matter.

What's known about Tu-22M3 aircraft
The supersonic Tu-22M3 bomber has been used since the early months of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In particular, it's utilized for missile strikes using X-22 missiles, with one aircraft capable of carrying up to three such missiles.

The Tu-22M3 can reach a maximum altitude of about 13,000 meters, reach speeds of up to 2,300 km/h, and has an estimated flight range of 6,800 km. X-22 missiles can hit targets up to 600 km away, traveling at speeds exceeding 4,000 km/h, slowing down to over 2,000 km/h in the terminal phase while attacking a target along a ballistic trajectory from a height of about 60 km.

Collectively, these capabilities enable the aircraft to avoid significant proximity to Ukraine's border and, consequently, stay outside the range of our air defense. However, it's not a secret that Ukrainian air defense capabilities are expanding.

Can Ukraine shoot down such an aircraft?
In theory, yes. According to Oleksandr Kovalenko, the military and political expert of the Information Resistance Group, something similar was achieved in May.

"Shooting down a Tu-22 in the Kursk region is entirely feasible. But we need to await official reports, and only after that draw relevant conclusions. Similar operations were conducted by our Air Force in May when simultaneously in the Bryansk region, Su-34 and Su-35 aircraft were shot down, along with two Mi-8MTPR-1 electronic warfare helicopters and one Mi-8," he notes in a comment to RBC-Ukraine.

Tu-22M3 aircraft from the Kursk region have attacked before. Ukrainian forces have an understanding of their bases, takeoff points, and approximate flight trajectories. This type of strategic aviation is based at the Shaykovka (the Kaluga region), Soltsy (the Novgorod region), and Mozdok (North Ossetia) airfields, explains the head of the Сenter of Military Law Researches, Oleksandr Musiienko.

"With the consideration that Russia has long used them, we can assume that all necessary information is available. In principle, we can calculate and assess their capabilities. Then comes the work to identify the possibilities of shooting down such an aircraft. If we talk about the Patriot system, they intercept targets at a range of 80 km," he stressed in conversation with the publication.

In other words, if the aircraft approaches such a distance, in general, the anti-aircraft missile system can intercept it.

"We saw last week strikes on planes over the occupied territories and even over the Black Sea. And we assume that our capabilities are expanding. Therefore, I cannot exclude that in this case, it's about such a special operation that took into account the data and indicators I mentioned. Then it's a matter of execution technique. It's not guaranteed that we will learn about it in detail," adds the expert.

From this perspective, the news of the possible interception of long-range aircraft can be deemed unexpected, as the adversary is also familiar with Ukraine's SAM capabilities. As airstrikes occur, long-range radar detection aircraft take off, conducting considerable reconnaissance.

"But as it turns out, the Patriot can deploy very quickly. And this is evident when Russia is shelling Kyiv with ballistic missiles: there's no air alarm yet, but you can already hear the Patriot missile launches," Musiienko notes.

Could Russia have accidentally shot down its own Tu-22M3?
The experts interviewed by RBC-Ukraine doubt this.

"I don't think friendly fire is possible because it's a very large target. And it's challenging for Russian air defense to mistake it for some Ukrainian object. It's a sufficiently large aircraft that is quite challenging to mistake, for example, with a Ukrainian MiG-29 or some drone," explains Oleksandr Kovalenko.

According to Musiienko, the Russians would have definitely seen their aircraft on the radar.

"It seems to me something interesting is happening. But I doubt it was friendly fire," he adds in conversation with the news agency.

RBC-Ukraine reached out to sources in the Defense Forces for comments.

"Perhaps the Russian air defense system accidentally activated. We don't know why these Tu planes disappeared from radars," noted one of the interlocutors.

On the morning of December 29, Russia delivered the most significant blow to Ukrainian cities since the full-scale invasion began in 2022. In the morning, reports indicated the launch of over a hundred missiles, and the attacks lasted throughout the day.

Currently, it's known about the death of approximately 20 people. Several dozen more are injured. Kyiv, Dnipro, Lviv, Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Odesa, Konotop, and Smila were hit.

RBC-Ukraine also published photos of the aftermath of the strikes in Ukrainian cities.