One of Russia’s most iconic bombers, the Soviet-era Tu-160 is set to receive a series of major upgrades in coming years.
The 1980s-era Tu-160 Blackjack has broken no shortage of records throughout its years in active service—it has been called the world’s largest, heaviest, and fastest bomber all at once. But, while the Blackjack can still fulfill its basic mission purpose, the decades have taken their toll on the Soviet bomber. This has become particularly apparent in the plane’s outdated avionics suite, increasing incompatibility with the latest Russian air-launched weapons, and aging NK-32 engines.
It was revealed in 2015 that Russia’s defense industry plans to modernize Tu-160 with the coming Tu-160M revision. The new variant was tested in the late 2010s and undertook its maiden flight in 2020, suggesting that the Tu-160M is nearing service readiness. The new fighter jet largely retains its predecessor’s design. Instead, it focuses on a raft of improvements and new features under the hood. The Tu-160M upgrade follows an established pattern for Russian aircraft modernization projects, mirroring the avionics and radar upgrades given to the Tu-22 bomber in recent years. There is a clear logic to this approach: in the short- to medium-term, iterating on a time-proven chassis can save time and research and development costs over investing in a fresh airframe design.
The Tu-160M does not appear to bring notable weapons upgrades. Instead, it is fielding its predecessor’s Raduga Kh series of air-launched cruise missiles: these include the Kh-101, 102, 55SM, and 555. The Kh-101 boasts a conventional warhead, while the Kh-102 likely carries a nuclear payload; both are new, relatively stealthy, low-flying missiles with a likely maximum range of around 2,800 kilometers. It was reported last year that the Russian military was studying the feasibility of arming the Tu-160 with the hypersonic, nuclear-capable Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missile. The current status of those deliberations is unknown, nor is it clear if the Kinzhal fitting is being considered for the base Tu-160 or its upgraded variants.
All of the seventeen currently-serving Tu-160s will be upgradeable to the Tu-160M standard, but this is only the first part of what is a two-tiered upgrade plan. The Tu-160M is to be followed in 2023 by the Tu-160M2 revision, a deeper modernization that will bring a glass digital cockpit, upgraded active electronically scanned array radar and new long-range cruise missiles. The M2’s most notable addition is perhaps the new NK-32-02 engine. The NK-32-02 promises increased fuel efficiency, which may translate into a greater operational range depending on the bomber’s payload capacity and other specifications.
The upgraded Tu-160 fleet will consist of twenty-seven units in total and is set to serve as the backbone of Russia’s heavy strategic bomber fleet through the coming decade. Moscow plans to replace the Soviet-era bomber with the next-generation PAK DA, which will reportedly be launched in the same manufacturing plants as the Tu-160M2. The PAK-DA brings an entirely new airframe design and weapons suite, as well as unprecedented stealth penetration capabilities. The PAK-DA is scheduled to enter service in 2027, though it may take many more years for the bomber to be mass-produced in sufficient quantities to fully phase out Russia’s Tu-160 force.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.