It is not clear that Russia actually needs the PAK-DA. The Tu-160M2, which should be entering production in the coming years, combined with stealthy new long-range cruise missile would provide the Kremlin with excellent strike capability at far lower cost.
Russia is gearing up for the eventual start of production for the PAK-DA stealth bomber even though the aircraft will not be ready for many years to come. One of the many challenges for the Russians to overcome is the shortage of trained and experienced personnel to build such a complex aircraft.
"The enterprise is working on the design and organization of the production of a prospective long-range aviation complex," Nikolai Savitskih, the director general of the Kazan Aviation Plant (KAZ) told the Russian language TASS news service. "KAZ was identified as the parent manufacturer, will ensure the production load for the next decade.”
(This first appeared in February of this year.)
Right now, Tupolev is working under a contract to develop and build a prototype for the new bomber. However, the Kazan factory—which will also build the Tupolev Tu-160M2 Blackjack—will need more trained workers. “One of the problematic issues for the company is the shortage of highly skilled specialists such as mechanics, engineers, designers, workers, etc.,” Savitskih said. “In 2017, we worked out and prepared a comprehensive target program for training and retaining personnel under the programs of the prospective aviation long-range aviation complex (PAK-DA), Tu-160 to the amount of more than 2.6 billion rubles by 2025. To date, this program is being approved by the government of the Russian Federation.”
Michael Kofman, a Russian military affairs specialist at the Center for Naval Analyses, said that the PAK-DA program is more or less a research and development program at the moment. The key to success for the program depends on Russia’s ability to develop an appropriate powerplant for the new bomber and its ability to build the stealthy surfaces needed for such a machine. If Russia can find the money to pull off the development program, then there is a real possibility of starting PAK-DA production late in the next decade.
“Then maybe we can build something here in mid 2020s,” Kofman said.
However, it is not clear that Russia actually needs the PAK-DA. The Tu-160M2, which should be entering production in the coming years, combined with stealthy new long-range cruise missile would provide the Kremlin with excellent strike capability at far lower cost.
“It’s an answer to a question that’s not really being asked,” Kofman said. “It’s easier to make a stealthier missile than a stealth bomber. So with a super long range missile, why do you need a new bomber?”
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Russia has a host of long-range stealthy cruise missiles in its inventory and several more under development. In Kofman’s view, the Kremlin would be wiser to spend its money upgrading its Tupolev Tu-95 and developing more efficient engines for its Tu-160 while funding cruise missile programs than wasting money on a PAK-DA.
“Basically, it makes more sense to spend money to bring the Tu-95 and Tu-160 fleets to higher operational readiness, “ Kofman said. “Upgrading the Tu-160 to improve fuel efficiency will also have a noticeable impact. So in my view, they already have the missile, now they need the upgraded engines.”
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.