Bombs Away: Russia's 'New' Tu-22M3M Bomber Might Look Familiar (And Still Deadly)

October 13, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: RussiaTu-22M3MTu-22BomberBackfire

Bombs Away: Russia's 'New' Tu-22M3M Bomber Might Look Familiar (And Still Deadly)

An old bomber is getting some new tricks.

The Tu-22M can be counted amongst the prodigious ranks weapon systems misleadingly named for political reasons. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union developed a pointy-nosed Tu-22 supersonic jet bomber (codenamed “Blinder” by NATO) with two turbojets slung over the tail that resembled a rocket ship straight out of Buck Rodgers. However, the Blinder suffered numerous deadly mishaps—the downwards-firing ejection seats were not popular on a plane prone to landing accidents—and the airframe’s aluminum skin tended to warp at high speeds, a problem for a jet designed to fly one-and-a-half times the speed of sound.

In the end, the Soviets mostly relegated the Tu-22 to reconnaissance, jamming and maritime strike roles—but went back to the drawing board seeking a new supersonic bomber. However, because the VVS (Soviet Air Force) was competing for funding with the ballistic missile branch, it attempted to hide the failure of the Tu-22 by branding the new aircraft as being merely an upgraded model, the Tu-22M. Even NATO wasn't fooled, giving the plane the new codename "Backfire" (it became popular with Soviet pilots!) and for years mistakenly believed its ‘real' designation was the Tu-26.

The Backfire’s swing-wings allowed it to spread its wings to a 25-degree angle for added lift during takeoff and landing—or to tuck them inwards up to 65 degrees to maximize supersonic performance. Powered by two boxy side-slung NK-25 turbofans, the ultimate Tu-22M3 Backfire-C model could nearly attain twice the speed of sound. The crew of three or four anachronistically included a tail-gunner/radio operator who remotely controlled a twin-barreled 23-millimeter cannon which could also shoot out missile decoy rounds.

The speedy bomber had two different mission profiles: it was either intended to cruise towards a target in Europe or China at high altitude, then dive down to low altitude as it approached enemy air defenses and sprint to supersonic speeds to unleash a huge payload of up to twenty-four tons of gravity bombs.

Its other role was to hunt down U.S. carriers using real-time satellite intelligence—and once within three to four hundred miles range, release two or three hulking Kh-22 anti-ship cruise missiles slung under the belly. The 11.5-meter long missiles would accelerate towards their targets at four-and-a-half times the speed of sound, guided in their terminal approach by a radar-homing seeker. Later Backfires added the capability of lugging up to ten smaller Kh-15 nuclear-tipped anti-ship missiles with a range of 184 miles.


However, the Backfire’s range of 4,200 miles was inadequate for striking North America unless it employed the aerial refueling probe which jutted from its nose like the horn on the snout of a prehistoric beast. Therefore, while negotiating the SALT II arms control agreement, the United States insisted the Tu-22s have the probes removed, lest they be included in the count of “strategic” bombers.

In any case, like its predecessor, the Tu-22M was bedeviled by difficult handling and poor reliability, with operational units only able to muster up to 40 percent of the airframes, and engine overhauls required after only fifty flight hours! One head of the VVS (a former bomber pilot!) even tried pressing charges on the Tupelov design bureau for the problems, though some were gradually ironed out in the later M2 and M3 models.

Tu-22Ms did perform satisfactorily during combat deployments bombing targets first towards the end of the Soviet War in Afghanistan and later targeting the Chechnyan capital of Grozny. However, the Backfire was never exported, though there were rumors of an attempted Indian lease, and later in 2013, interest in a purchase from China.

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Backfire for the 21 st Century?

Out of nearly 497 Backfires built (mostly M2 and M3 models), Russia still operates 67 Tu-22M3s bombers in its 200 th and 52nd Guard Heavy Bomber regiments. Like Russia’s slower but longer-range Tu-95 Bear bombers , the Backfires have been used to probe the air defense systems of NATO countries and Japan, and practice stalking and making mock attack runs on U.S. Navy carriers—both to gather intelligence and to troll Moscow’s potential adversaries. Since 2016, Backfires have also been deployed bomb anti-Assad rebels in Syria in highly publicized raids, as you can see in this video .

However, even by the time of the Backfire's introduction to service late in the Cold War, supersonic speed and low-altitude penetration simply were not adequate protection against modern anti-aircraft missiles and radars. Five to nine of the Backfire's supersonic predecessor, the Tu-22, were shot down flying combat missions for Libya and Iraq during the 1980s. Then during the August 2008 Russo-Georgian war, a Tu-22M3R reconnaissance model (one of twelve equipped with signal-intelligence gear and a side-looking radar) was shot down by a Georgian Buk-M1 (SA-11) missile system near Gori, it's navigator killed and two other crew captured.