Russia's Supersonic Bombers: Now Locked and Loaded with New Supersonic Missiles
Russia is planning to upgrade its fleet of Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire intermediate range bombers with new engines and avionics. The first of 30 modernized supersonic bombers will make its first flight next year if all goes as planned.
"The first heavily upgraded Tu-22M3 will take to the skies in 2018,” Tupolev chief executive officer Alexander Konyukhov told the Moscow-based TASS news agency on November 17. “Also in that year, the modernization of operational aircraft will begin in compliance with the new state armament program. The upgrade will be carried out within the timeframe defined by this program."
The Tu-22M3 variant of the supersonic Backfire first became operational in 1983 during the Cold War. While the aircraft has been modernized, the planned upgrade would be the most comprehensive revamp of the long-serving bomber since its introduction into service.
Along with an airframe life-extension, the Tu-22M3M upgrade incorporates thr new SVP-24-22 bombsights, a NV-45 radar and an improved cockpit among other new systems. The Russians are also planning to replace the Tu-22M3’s Kuznetsov NK-25 engines with new and more efficient NK-32-02 engines that were designed for the revamped Tupolev Tu-160M2 Blackjack.
“The Tu-22M3M will feature an absolutely new avionics system standardized with the Tu-160M2," a Russian defense industry source told TASS. "This refers to the entire avionics, including the navigation and sighting complex.”
Michael Kofman, a research scientist specializing in Russian military affair at the Center for Naval Analysis, is skeptical about some aspects of the upgrade program. Kofman correctly noted that refitting an existing airframe with new engines can require complex engineering work. “I'm quite skeptical on NK-32-02 engine refit for Tu-22M3,” Kofman said.
Moreover, the TASS report notes that the Tu-22M3M will be armed with upgraded X-32 supersonic anti-ship missile, a modernized version of the X-22 (NATO AS-4 Kitchen). The massive 13,000lbs weapon has a speed of about Mach 4.5 while flying at altitudes of 130,000ft over a range of about 620 miles. It can be armed with a 1,102lbs conventional warhead or a nuclear warhead if needed. The Tu-22M3M will be able to carry three such weapons.
But while the Tu-22M3M/X-32 combination looks formidable on paper, the weakness of the system remains target cueing. The X-32 uses a combination of inertial navigation, GPS/GLONASS and active radar homing to hit targets at range. However, the 600 miles is well beyond the Tu-22M3M’s sensor range. During the Soviet-era, the target cuing data was provided by the EORSAT space-based sensor network, which no longer exists.
It is not clear how the Russians are tackling the target-cuing problem these days. Nor is it a problem that the U.S. Navy has entirely solved, though once the service’s Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air (NIFC-CA) battle network is up and running, the United States will be most of the way there.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.
Image Credit: Creative Commons/Wikicommons/Author: Alexander Beltyukov.