Russia’s 'New' Tu-160M2 Strategic Bomber: A Waste of Rubles?
Between the Tu-160M2’s new engine, weapons, and avionics, its only remaining design commonality with the older Blackjack will be the airframe itself. But why not wait for new stealth bombers?
Russia’s upcoming Tu-160M2 strategic bomber boasts a nearly identical design to its Soviet Tu-160 predecessor, but is slated to contain major weapons and avionics upgrades.
In 2015, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced plans to modernize the 1980’s Tu-160 “Blackjack.” In 2018, the Defense Ministry unveiled a contract to convert 10 Tu-160’s to the new “M2” standard over the coming decade, along with procuring 50 new Tu-160M2’s by 2030. Production timelines have fluctuated in recent years, but the first four Tu-160M2’s are expected to enter service by 2023 according to a press release by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. All of the 17 Tu-160 models that are currently in service will eventually be converted into Tu-160M2’s, according to Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov.
Citing Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin, Russian news outlet Tass reported that the first Tu-160M2 flight test flight was scheduled for January 2018. Likely a concept demonstrator rather than the first serial unit, the tested Tu-160M2 model carried the same engine as its Tu-160 predecessor; meanwhile, serial Tu-160M2 units will reportedly come with new, more fuel-efficient NK-32 02 engines that can support a significantly longer operational range.
Over the past decade, the Kremlin has followed an aircraft modernization strategy that seeks to preserve the original Soviet design and function as much as possible while integrating new internal components. The Tu-160M2 follows that same modernization trend, retaining the Blackjack’s variable-sweep wing design while introducing a new engine, as well as a raft of weapons and avionics upgrades.
Most recently, it was revealed that the Tu-160M2 will be getting the same on-board communications suite as Russia’s fifth-generation Su-57 air superiority fighter: “The system has been developed using the communications platform created for the Su-57 fifth-generation fighter. As its main advantages, it is characterized by high reliability, speedy information transmission, a small weight and energy efficiency. The technical solutions laid out in creating the system help promptly build up its technical functionality by upgrading the software,” read a press statement by Russian defense subsidiary Ruselectronics Group about their involvement with the Tu-160M2 project. Russia’s upcoming Tu-22M3M bomber will also get that same communication system, indicating a broader strategy to save on R&D costs by investing in avionics components that are interoperable across several aircraft.
The Tu-160M2 will also be getting an expanded armaments suite. In addition to the Kh-55MS, Kh-555, nuclear Kh-102 missiles of its predecessor, the Tu-160M2 will carry a new generation of long-range cruise missiles: “We are developing new airborne weapons, and you can’t compare the Tu-160 plane with the Kh-55, Kh-550 and even Kh-101 missiles and the plane, which we hope to get serial-produced by the 2030s with new airborne weapons that will have quite different ranges," said Borisov.
Between the Tu-160M2’s new engine, weapons, and avionics, its only remaining design commonality with the older Blackjack will be the airframe itself. The Tu-160M2 is poised to revitalize Moscow’s aging strategic bomber fleet over the coming decade— that is, if Russia’s aircraft industry is able to meet the Kremlin’s ambitious production quotas. In particular, it remains to be seen if Russia’s defense budget can sustain two major strategic bomber projects at the same time: even as Moscow moves to procure 50 new Tu-160M2 fighters and to modernize over a dozen older Tu-160’s, it is also pumping considerable resources into its expensive, next-generation PAK DA stealth bomber project.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the national interest.