This last Thursday, November 16, the prototype of the upgraded version of the Soviet-era Tupolev Tu-160 heavy bomber, dubbed the Tu-160M2, was rolled out of the Kazan factory, where such machines were originally built during the 1980s, the Aviationist reports.
The Russian Aerospace Force has described the aircraft as a new machine, albeit retaining the designation and the fuselage of its predecessor. The avionics, sensors, and communication systems were all described as being new. There are also plans to use new engines instead of the legacy ones equipping the original Tu-160s still in service.
However, this prototype is not entirely new either. It was cobbled together from parts stored in the factory.
According to The Drive, it is hard to know how many of the future Tu-160M2s will consist of newly-made airframes. Potentially, the M2 program could end up being a retooling of the existing airframes instead of brand-new ones, although the Kremlin insists there is only 60 percent commonality with the older airplanes.
Nevertheless, these airplanes are expected to become the cornerstone of Moscow’s bomber force. They will use the most modern weapons available in Russian arsenals, like KH-101 and KH-102 long-range missiles with limited stealth capabilities.
Although the standard Tu-160s already boast some impressive capabilities, they only saw combat for the first time in 2015, when they were added to the Russian efforts in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.
At the end of the 1960s, the Soviet Union started studies for a potential new-generation bomber, able to compete with the newer designs coming from the U.S. The unveiling of the Rockwell B-1 Lancer in 1972 made this program even more important, and the new aircraft would be designed as a response to the American machine.
Like the B-1, the new Tupolev airplane included a blended-wing design and a variable sweep wing, which folds against the fuselage or extends outward, in order to adapt to different flight regimes. This mechanism made the airplane more efficient, with a better handling at lower speeds or during landings and take-offs. The wing design also offers better high-speed performance when required.
The Tu-160 is also large. Huge, in fact. Weighing 275 tons, the Tu-160 is the heaviest combat aircraft ever put into service. It has a length of 177 ft and a maximum wingspan of 182 ft.
It first flew in 1981, becoming known as the ‘Blackjack’ in the West and as the ‘Belyy Lebed’ or the White Swan in the Soviet Union.
The Blackjack is powered by four Kuznetsov NK-32 engines. Producing up to 55,115 lbf with the afterburners on, these are among the most powerful turbofans ever designed. They can also push this massive airplane to a speed of Mach 2 or twice the speed of sound.
The Tu-160 also sports a mission range of over 7,000 miles and can carry 80,000 pounds of bombs and missiles.
Although impressive, the airplane was expensive and was built in small numbers. By the mid-2000s, only 16 of such airplanes remained operational.
When Vladimir Putin ascended to power in Russia, he intended to improve the military capabilities of the nation. This included breathing new life into Russia’s bomber force.
In 2014, the first of the remaining Tu-160s was upgraded to the Tu-160M standard. A year later the Kremlin declared the intention of building an improved M2 version.
Although the new machine is already completed, the first flight is only due to happen by the end of 2018. Plans to mass produce this new model starting in 2019 were pushed back to 2021. If these delays are technical or part of the wider economic issues hurting Russia is not yet known.
Also of note is the lack of news regarding the ambitious PAK-DA bomber program. Similar to the current B-21 project, which aims to create a new generation bomber for the U.S. Air Force, the PAK-DA generated some buzz upon its announcement.
However, during the rollout of the Tu-160M2, there was no information regarding the new Russian stealth bomber program.
For now, it seems that the gargantuan Blackjacks will keep flying alongside the legacy bombers. The Russian Air Force also operates aircraft like the Tu-22M and the Tu-95 for this task. The Tu-22M is a smaller, less capable Blackjack and has been operational since the 1970s.
On the other hand, the Tu-95, known as the “Bear,” entered service in 1956 and still serves in its intended role as a strategic bomber. It is comparable in function and service time to the venerable B-52 of the U.S. Air Force.
Although upgrades may keep these airplanes combat-worthy for years to come, they are, in fact, becoming obsolete as time passes. Their air-worthiness will also decrease. If modern-day Russia lacks the ability to improve beyond retooled aircraft, then its bomber force may not survive the coming decades.
[Featured Image by ITAR-TASS/AP Images]