The mighty FT has a very interesting story today about the exposure of an extremely worrying arms deal in the Ukraine. Regular readers will be well aware that I've been hoping that the Ukrainian revolution may lead to us discovering much more about the Viktor Bout system - Kuchma's Ukraine was, next to Transdnistria and Bulgaria , the main source of arms for the network. Well, this may not tell us anything about that, but it does tell us plenty.
According to Grigory Omelchenko, the former chairman of the parliamentary anti-mafia committee, quoting an investigation by the secret service, a number of Kh55 missiles were sold between 1999 and 2001 to Iran and China. The Kh55 is better known in the West by its NATO designation, which I propose to use. NATO calls it the AS-15 Kent. It's a monster, an air-launched cruise missile first deployed in 1984 with a maximum range of 3000km. In its main role as a strategic weapon, the payload would be a 200 kiloton nuclear warhead (not that it is suggested that the warheads were sold). A land version once existed but was destroyed under the INF treaty. There is also a 600km range tactical version, a submarine-launched version and a coastal defence version of the tactical version. The tactical variants have a 410kg explosive payload and terminal guidance by active radar.
The original launch platform was the bomber version of the Tu-95 Bear long range reconnaissance plane, some of which were used to carry cruise missiles. However, the system was probably designed to go with the Tu-160 Blackjack, a semistealthy, very fast and very long range jet comparable with the US B-1B Lancer and ... not really any other aircraft. It looks like this:
Much strategic bomber materiel, including all the Blackjacks, was abandoned in Ukraine at the end of the Soviet Union, as well as nuclear missiles and all manner of other armaments. Some of this was taken over by those units that constituted the Ukrainian armed forces, much more was basically left in limbo. Under a 1993 treaty, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan agreed to return all nuclear weapons on their territory to Russia. It was only after a further agreement in 1999 that 19 strategic bombers and some 600 assorted air-to-surface missiles were transferred to Russia in exchange for the settlement of Ukraine's gas bill. But at the same time, it would seem that Iran and China both came in for six Kents each.
Interestingly, both China and India (and for that matter Ukraine) now possess the shorter-ranged Tu-22M Backfire bomber, smaller than the Tu-160 but highly capable. One of its key roles for the Soviet Union was to attack shipping, probably the use India and China have in mind, but the plane was also the centre of a fierce debate during the late 70s/early 80s arms control rows. The US - well, some of it - argued that the Backfire could be counted as an intercontinental-range aircraft and hence part of the strategic balance. The Soviets denied that it had the range. The Americans pointed out that it had a flight-refuelling capability, and that they might conceivably hang a longer-ranged cruise missile under it. Although this was true up to a point, the whole issue became submerged in the neo-con/B Team versus State Department rows. Whatever. The worrying thing about loose Kents would be whether or not "someone" would be trying to create a worldwide capability by adapting them for the Backfire.
Alternatively, the buyers might want to use them as the basis for their own development programme.
It's just a great pity that George Bush will probably want to use this as a pretext to start another war with someone....