Russian Fleet to Receive Most Dangerous Bomber Yet Before 2023: First Post Soviet Tu-160 Becomes Operational

The Russian Air Force is set to receive the first newly built Tu-160M bomber before the beginning of 2023, marking the beginning of a new set of acquisitions expected tor reach over 50 aircraft. The new bomber notably represents the very first its class completely built in Russia since the Soviet Union’s disintegration. Head of the state run United Aircraft Corporation Yury Slyusar stated on December 23 regarding the acquisition: “It’s a highly upgraded plane based on the Tu-160 with new capabilities and functions. We do it two ways: we upgrade the existing fleet of Tu-160 planes and in parallel we have set up production in Kazan and are delivering the first production standard Tu-160M this year that will be added to the fleet of long-range aircraft.” The first Tu-160M aircraft made its first flight in January 2021, and was the first Tu-160 that had no parts built in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Air Force began fielding the aircraft in 1987, and production of 27 serial Tu-160 airframes was compelled for the service although only 14 of these have survived to serve in the Russian Air Force today — with the remainder either destroyed by the Ukrainian government, kept in Ukrainian museums or lost to accidents. A fleet of 100 of the bombers was initially planned for the Soviet fleet, although the much smaller Russian Air Force is expected to field little over 60 at the highest projections and will do so several decades later than the USSR was expected to. 

Russia has struggled to bring the Tu-160 back into serial production for a number of reasons, with the far smaller size of the country’s economy and industrial base relative to the Soviet era being major impediments to progress. Although the airframe is almost identical to that of the Soviet era, avionics and armaments have been enhanced considerably and new more efficient NK-32-02 engines integrated. Entirely new mission systems and avionics include a NV-70M radar, digital cockpit displays, and navigation equipment combining inertial navigation, astronavigation, a doppler navigation radar and a satellite navigation receiver. The aircraft have also integrated a range of new weapons, most notably the Kh-101/102 radar evading cruise missile which has an extreme range of over 3000km, with air launched hypersonic missiles currently under development to widen its armaments suite.

Soviet built Tu-160 airframes are being modernised to a similar standard as the newly built airframes, with the first modernised to the Tu-160M standard having flown in February 2020. Although the Tu-160 is currently considered the world’s most capable bomber, this title is expected to be lost as the American B-21 and Chinese H-20 enter service and introduce next generation capabilities far ahead of those of existing bombers. Russia’s own next generation bomber program the PAK DA has meanwhile faced considerable delays, and is expected to be produced in modest numbers and fly alongside the Tu-160M2. Indeed, struggles developing a clean sheet post Soviet bomber are widely considered to have been a factor leading Russia to return the Tu-160 to production in enhanced form - mirroring similar trends across the defence sector. Long delays to fielding the T-14 tank and Su-57 fighter, for example, led Russia to invest in enhanced variants of Soviet era designs instead with the T-90M tank and Su-35 fighter. The Tu-160M program is seen to represent a similar compromise and reflect a similar struggle to move beyond Soviet era programs.



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