Russia’s Tu-160 strategic bombers may be armed with hypersonic ballistic missiles.
The Russian military is studying whether to arm the Tu-160 (NATO code name: Blackjack) with the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal (“dagger”), a nuclear-capable missile with an estimated range of 1,200 miles and a speed of up to Mach 10. If true, it would vastly extend the Blackjack’s target reach.
“The possibility of deploying Kinzhal missiles on Tu-160 aircraft is being considered,” said Russian news agency TASS, quoting an unidentified source in the defense industry. “The work on this option is due to be completed this year,” the source said.
TASS is a state-owned news organization, so presumably, the “leak” indicates that Russia either plans to arm the Tu-160 with hypersonic missiles—or wants the rest of the world to think so.
The supersonic Blackjack wouldn’t be the first Russian aircraft to be armed with the Kinzhal, an air-launched version of the ground-based, nuclear-capable Iskander ballistic missile. In 2018, Russian officials announced the missile had been fitted to the MiG-31 fighter (NATO code name: Foxhound), a descendant of the Cold War MiG-25 Foxbat. “Currently, a squadron of MiG-31K aircraft armed with hypersonic missiles is on experimental combat duty in Russia’s Southern Military District,” TASS said.
This was soon followed by tests of the Kinzhal on the Tu-22M3 Backfire, a Cold War supersonic bomber that has shorter range but faster speed than the Tu-160, the world’s largest operational bomber. The Blackjack has a range of around 8,000 or 9,000 miles, though on one occasion it flew for 11,000 miles and stayed aloft for twenty-three hours.
Arming the Tu-160 with Kinzhals is interesting on several levels. First, the bomber is already armed with subsonic Kh-55 cruise missiles, with about a 1,600-mile range, and the newer Kh-102, which has an estimated range of more than 3,000 miles.
The Kinzhal ballistic missile would appear to have shorter legs than the older cruise missiles, but much greater speed. That’s important from the perspective of Russia, which has been aggressively developing hypersonic (faster than Mach 5) missiles out of fear that older subsonic or supersonic weapons are vulnerable to being shot down by U.S. anti-missile defenses. The Kinzhal is designed to penetrate missile defenses and destroy critical theater-level installations such as command centers, though it could also be used as an anti-ship missile.
A long-range bomber that can potentially carry either slow but long-range cruise missiles, or shorter range but extremely fast ballistic missiles, will complicate Western missile defenses that must prepare to stop multiple threats.
In addition, arming the Tu-160 with hypersonic missiles offers another reason for Russia’s military to continue operating an aircraft with a checkered history. The Tu-160 was a late Cold War design, the Soviet Union’s answer to America’s B-1 Lancer supersonic strategic bomber. Resembling the B-1 down to the arrow shape and variable-geometry swing wings, but much larger than the Lancer, the Tu-160 suffered numerous teething problems. No more than a couple of dozen were built prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Russia currently operates just 16 of the Blackjacks.
In 2015, Russia announced plans to restart Tu-160 production, even as Moscow unveiled a host of new strategic weapons, such as nuclear-powered cruise missiles. Adding hypersonic missiles to the Blackjack’s arsenal may give a boost to the bomber’s future prospects.