Russia has deployed a 16-strong bomber fleet consisting of Tu-95 and Tu-160 aircraft at Olenya Air Base located only 200 km from NATO-members Finland and Norway.
The 3,500m runway normally housed limited number of Tu-22Ms and An-12 transport planes. The role of this air base as a forward deployment field for long-range aviation was activated last autumn when Tu-95s and Tu-160s started coming in.
The first four Tu-160 strategic bombers came in August; and by October there were more than ten Tu-95 and Tu-160 aircraft reportedly deployed.
Sending such heavy bombers north “is certainly signaling,” Professor Katarzyna Zysk with the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies told the Barents Observer.
The strategic bombers now deployed inside the Arctic Circle were previously based at Engels near the city of Saratov. Located only 600 km from the border with Ukraine, the air base proved vulnerable when two of the TU-95 planes were damaged after what was believed to be a drone attack last December.
This week’s new satellite photo from Olenya clearly indicates that Russia’s strategic aviation forces flew north for more than a short-term evacuation away from the Ukrainian neighborhood.
All aprons along the runway are occupied. In the southern end, two Tu-160 are parked, while 14 Tu-95 stand side-by-side at all the other aprons big enough for larger planes.
Tu-22M planes are moved to the parking areas in the northwestern part of the air base.
One Il-78 aerial refueling tanker is parked sideways with its wing partly outside the apron not to block the taxiway for the strategic bombers. The planes can be airborne on short notice. That gives Norway and Finland a shorter warning to scramble fighter jets to identify flights close to the countries’ airspace. In late April, NATO scrambled a pair of F-35s to meet a formation of seven Russian planes, including two Tu-160 bombers, flying international air space north of Norway’s Finnmark region.
Both the Tu-160 and Tu-95 are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Russia’s central storage for nuclear warheads, Bolshoye Ramozero, is 10 km from Olenya Air Base.
Recent reports also indicate that the strategic bombers flying out of Olenya Air Base participate in cruise missile attacks on Ukraine.
A HF radio observer, tracking the activities of Russia’s strategic aviation forces, has reported nearly daily flights out of Olenya Air Base over the last week. That includes both training missions inside Murmansk region air space and combat missions with firings on targets in Ukraine.