A pair of Russian Tu-160 “White Swan” strategic bombers, which are the fastest and largest bombers ever built, took part in a twelve-hour-long patrol flight over the northern seas off the coast of Russia earlier this week. The two bombers flew over the neutral waters of the Barents, Norwegian and North Seas; during which time the aircraft were escorted by MiG-31 jet fighters from the Russian naval air force along certain sections of their route, while at other times the Tu-160s were shadowed by aircraft from the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF).
"Two Tu-160 strategic missile-carrying bombers conducted a scheduled flight in airspace over the neutral waters of the Barents, Norwegian and North Seas. The flight lasted 12 hours," a spokesperson for the Russian Defense Ministry told Tass on Wednesday.
RAF Eurofighters Typhoons and RNoAF F-16s escorted the two bombers during the patrol flight.
Up in the Air
The dozen-hour-long mission conducted this week highlighted the endurance of the Tu-160, but it was less than half the time that a pair of the supersonic Russian bombers spent up in the air last month when two crews of the Long-Range Aviation group set a new record for distance and duration. The pilots of the Russian Aerospace Forces were up in the air for more than twenty-five hours and covered a distance of more than twenty thousand kilometers.
It isn’t immediately clear if either of the aircraft or crews that took part in this week’s twelve-hour flight were involved with last month’s record-setting flight. However, it is possible.
Russia operates a reported twenty-seven serially produced Tu-160s, along with nine test prototypes, and all of the aircraft operate out of Engels Air Force Base outside of Saratov.
The Tu-160 is outwardly similar to the American Rockwell B-1 Lancer, which spurred the Soviets to develop the “White Swan.” While both have variable-sweep wings and both are supersonic, which is about the only notable similarities. The B-1 Lancer is smaller and was developed as a bomber in the most classic sense, whereas the Tu-160 was developed as a stand-off weapons platform.
The White Swan is one deadly warbird, capable of launching missiles from its bomb bay doors and then hitting speeds of Mach 2+ to escape enemy aircraft. Yet it is the only Soviet-designed bomber not to carry any defensive weapons. That latter point may be why it was escorted during the recent twelve-hour flight by the MiG-31s as speed is really the only friend the Tu-160 would have in a fight.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.