Russia began the most ambitious test of its strategic bomber fleet in almost a quarter of a century Monday.

Up to 20 bombers are being sent into the air with full combat payloads to carry out live firing exercises of their cruise missiles. It is the largest display of Russian air power since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Officials said that the bomber runs would test Russia's readiness to deploy its nuclear deterrent. The week-long drill, part of a broader military exercise codenamed Stability-2008, takes place against the background of heightened tensions with the West after Russia's war with Georgia in August.

"During these exercises, for the first time in many years, the crews of Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95MS Bear-H strategic bombers will fly missions carrying the maximum combat payload and fire all the cruise missiles on board," Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Vladimir Drik told the RIA-Novosti news agency.

The flights involve more than a third of Russia's combined fleet of Bear bombers and Blackjack supersonic aircraft. The Air Force is stepping up its combat training regime, scheduling 350 live-firing drills for the second half of this year.

A former Air Force commander, General of the Army Pyotr Deynekin, said that Bear bombers had carried out live-firing tests of their entire cruise missile capabilities only once before, in 1984, at the height of the Cold War.

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