It took the Russian military a while to realize that strategic bombers constitute the most “useful” leg of the strategic triad – unlike ballistic missiles, they can be used in a conventional mission or, if push comes to shove, in a “demonstration” nuclear mission of the kind practiced during the West-99 exercise in 1999.
Using strategic bombers in conventional role, however, required an upgrade that would allow them to deliver conventional (which means more accurate) cruise missiles and (presumably precision-guided) bombs. As part of this upgrade, in 2005, the Air Forces is expected to receive a conventional version of the Kh-55/AS-15 long-range cruise missile known as Kh-555. The Air Forces also sent one of its Tu-160 bombers for an overhaul – it will return to active service in 2005 equipped with new avionics. This bomber will be capable of delivering gravity bombs as well as cruise missiles (so far, Tu-160 could only carry cruise missiles). No plans for further upgrades have been announced so far, but it is reasonable to expect that at least some other Tu-160 bombers will undergo similar overhaul in the next few years. However, I haven’t seen anything about plans to upgrade Tu-95MS.
In addition to the modernized bomber, the Air Forces will receive a new Tu-160 plane in 2005, bringing the number of Tu-160s to 15. Interestingly enough, it does not seem that this new bomber will be equipped with the new avionics like the one that is returning from overhaul. Well, its time will probably come some day.
Judging by the official projections, made public in November, Russia is not planning any serious cuts of its strategic bomber force until at least 2010 – it is expected that by the end of the decade the Air Forces will have about 75 bombers. It has 78 now and will have 79 in 2005, after the new Tu-160 enters service. Maybe it is these four bombers that the Air Force Commander-in-Chief is eager to sell to China?