Here's What You Need to Know: Moscow is serious about investigating its stealth bomber options.
(This article first appeared in February 2020.)
Recent reports in Russian media are suggesting that Moscow may be ready to commit to developing its own long-range stealth bomber akin to the American B-2 Spirit.
According to Izvestia, Moscow has requested the Tupolev design bureau to begin the development and production of three prototype PAK DA aircraft to begin initial flight tests between April and the fall of 2025. Then, if everything goes smoothly, on time and with adequate funding—and it almost never does in such defense programs—then the Russian military would begin testing in 2026 and production could begin in 2028.
Earlier in 2019, Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Krivoruchko told Krasnaya Zvezda “To date, a preliminary design of the future aircraft has been approved. Now Tupolev is developing working design documentation, and the creation of parts and components for prototypes of the aircraft has begun.”
Strategic bombers are already seeing a renaissance amidst renewed great power competition between China, Russia and the United States. Both China and the United States are set to introduce new subsonic long-range stealth bombers in the 2020s, the H-20 and B-21 Raider respectively.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has spent considerable sums to maintain and eventually modernize a trio of Cold War strategic bomber types all built by the Tupolev company. The 1950s-era Tu-95 ‘Bear’ bomber with contra-rotating propellers today has a standoff-attack operating concept much like the U.S. Air Force’s B-52 bombers. The supersonic Tu-22M Backfire is a medium-range jet bomber. Russia also possesses seventeen humongous Tu-160 Blackjack with intercontinental flight ranges, huge payload capacity, and a modestly reduced radar cross-section.
The Ministry of Defense has also poured money into cruise and hypersonic missiles which allow these non-stealthy bombers to attack targets from well beyond the range of air defenses.
Concept work on the PAK DA began all the way back in the late 1990s, but research and development was only formally kicked off in 2007. Despite difficulties financing Russian defense programs—particularly the Su-57 stealth fighter—the PAK DA has progressively overcome development and bureaucratic hurdles.
However, the program was delayed so that Russia could instead focus on the production of up to 50 new Tu-160M2 model Blackjacks with modern digital avionics, more fuel-efficient engines, and radar-absorbent material coatings.
Tupolev has released concept imagery and a video depicting the PAK DA. The new design will reportedly use a non-afterburning NK-65 engine based on the NK-32 Tier 2 turbofan used in the Tu-160M2, which is the largest engine ever installed in a combat aircraft.
Characteristics attributed to the design include a crew of four, incorporation of a sophisticated multi-aspect radar system, and capability to launch nuclear-tipped air-launched cruise missiles, hypersonic missiles (which can travel over five times the speed of sound), and air-to-air missiles for self-defense.
Its though the PAK DA designers are aiming for a planned range of around 7,500 miles and a maximum weapons payload of 30 tons.
Stealth Bombers and Russian Strategy
The decision to commit to the development of a stealth bomber sheds in a new light on a long history of scorn cast by Russian media on the effectiveness of stealth aircraft, posited to be highly vulnerable to new radars.
Apparently, former deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin truly did hold this point of view, and in 2012 criticized the PAK DA program, and stealth bombers more generally,. “Look at the level of development of anti-aircraft and anti-missile defences: all these planes will never get near their targets… Not ours, not theirs.”
However, both Putin and then-president Medvedev subsequently affirmed their support for the PAK DA, so it seems establishment broadly drew the opposite conclusion.
Indeed, a project like the PAK DA will demand a more rigorous and expensive stealth optimization than was necessary for Russia’s Su-57 stealth fighter, which is both agile enough to avoid threats and is only intended to perform comparatively shallow penetration of hostile airspace, as reflected by a lack of rearward stealth.
A slower subsonic stealth bomber like the B-2, by contrast, depends far more on remaining undetected throughout its entire mission. And due to the immense costs, and attendant small-scale production runs, such an aircraft could hardly be treated as expendable.
There’s also good reason to question whether Russia really needs a fantastically expensive stealth bomber designed to penetrate enemy air space at all, when it could instead rely on long-range Tu-95 Bear and Tu-160M2 Blackjack bombers that could sling stealthy, long-range cruise missiles from hundreds or thousands of miles away. The Blackjack also can accelerate to twice the speed of sound to give it better odds of escaping roving enemy interceptors.
It seems, however, that the Russian military particularly fears the threat of penetrating strikes—which in theory could unload weapons on key targets such as strategic weapons facilities and command-and-control nodes faster and more precisely. Thus Moscow may see such capability as worth the considerable investment after all, even as it simultaneously pursues hypersonic and cruise missile weapons that could act as substitutes for stealth bombers.
Odds are if the PAK DA ever enters production, its development path will be longer and rockier than the fairly brisk schedule announced to the media. But for now, the evidence is growing that Moscow is serious about investigating its stealth bomber options.
This article first appeared in February 2020.
Image: Northrop Grumman Corporation