Early next year in February, the first of Russia’s new production Tupolev Tu-160M2 Blackjack supersonic strategic bombers will take to the air.
The new bomber is essentially a prototype of a next generation variant of the venerable Blackjack, the first generation of which was built during the 1980s in the last days of the Soviet Union. Russia operates 16 of the surviving aircraft as long-range cruise missile carriers as a key part of its strategic bomber force. The aircraft have performed well during Russia’s Syria campaign acting as launch platforms for the stealthy MKB Raduga H-101 cruise missile, which is thought to have a range between 4,500MKm and 5,500Km.
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"The plane with the factory number 804 based on Soviet aircraft breakthroughs will be rolled out of the final assembly workshop of the Kazan Aviation Enterprise and delivered to the flight testing station in November this year,” a Russian defense industry source told the Moscow-based TASS news agency. “The plane is expected to perform its debut flight from the enterprise’s aerodrome in February next year.”
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According to the Russian defense industry source, the newly built Tu-160 will initially be capable of performing the same missions as the existing Blackjack fleet when it rolls out the factory in Kazan next year. However, the aircraft will subsequently be modified to the upgraded Tu-160M2 standard.
“The 804th plane will be subsequently upgraded to the Tu-160M2 variant," the defense industry source told TASS.
The timeline for the first flight of the Tu-160M2 seems somewhat more optimistic than previous statements by the Russian defense ministry—and could slip by a few months, which is fairly normal in the defense industry. “The first Tu-160M2 is expected to take off by the end of 2018, followed by full-scale production in 2021,” Col. Gen. Viktor Bondarev, commander of the Russian Air Force told the state-owned RIA Novosti news outlet last year.
Indications are that the Tu-160M2 will be Russia’s primary bomber modernization effort.
“The Tu-160M2 program is one of the known line items in the upcoming GPV 2018-2025 (state armament program) that's due to be signed by the end of this year,” Michael Kofman, a research scientist specializing in Russian military affairs at the Center for Naval Analyses told The National Interest.
“A new line of Tu-160s is also no small challenge, since it involves relearning the original manufacturing process for the bomber and establishing a production line for something Russia's defense industry had not made in quite some time.”
The Tu-160M2—though it more or less retains the same airframe—is practically a new aircraft under the hood. The new bomber will feature completely new mission systems and powered by upgraded versions of the existing Kuznetsov NK-32 afterburning turbofan. The modernized engines are more fuel-efficient and more reliable than the original motors.
“The new engine is the NK-32 02 series, which is supposed to be much more fuel efficient,” Kofman noted. “The original NK-32 engine had issues.”
The Russians plan to buy about fifty of the new Tu-160 variant. It is also likely that the 16 original model Tu-160 airframes will be upgraded to the new standard. Moscow can make do with the upgraded Tu-160M2 for its strategic bomber force because unlike the United States Air Force, the Russian Air Force does not expect the massive aircraft to penetrate into enemy airspace to deliver its payload. Instead, the Tu-160—which is capable of speeds of over Mach 2.0—would dash into position to launch long-range standoff cruise missiles. As such, stealth is not considered to be particularly important. Indeed, one of the advantages of a highly visible strategic bomber is that it enables nuclear signaling.
Russia is also allegedly working on the development of the Tupolev PAK-DA stealth bomber. However, that project is not likely to materialize any time soon. There does not seem to be a pressing need to build such an aircraft nor are the resources readily available to develop such a machine. “Rather than pour money into an entirely new bomber design, like the PAK-DA, Russia will instead modernize and build a new an upgraded variant of the Tu-160,” Kofman said.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.
Image: Creative Commons/Wikicommons.