Russia Rolls Out New Tu-160M2, But Are Moscow’s Bomber Ambitions Realistic?

Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation, or UAC, has rolled out the first prototype of its upgraded Tu-160M2 Blackjack at its plant in Kazan. The Russian Air Force insists that this design will be a key component of the country’s strategic, nuclear capable bomber force, along with its Tu-95MS Bears, but persistent budget shortfalls, limited industrial capacity, and other issues could easily stymie the modernization program.

On Nov. 16, 2017, the same day as the roll-out, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced that flight tests of the aircraft would begin in 2018, low rate production would start a year later, and serial deliveries would start in 2023. At that point, UAC hopes to be delivering two or three Tu-160M2s each year. In 2015, the Kremlin first announced the project, which it said would involve restarting the Blackjack production line.

“Everything is fine, just perfect,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said upon getting the update on the program from Rogozin, according to state-run media outlet TASS. “I congratulate the aircraft builders and I think we will deliver good news to the Defense Ministry.”

We still don’t know the complete scope of the Tu-160M2’s improvements over the previous Tu-160M upgrade, which UAC first delivered to the Russian Air Force in 2014. In the past, Russian officials have stated the M2 aircraft would share approximately 60 percent of their components with the small fleet of original Tu-160 Blackjack bombers.

It’s also not clear whether or not the M2s will be truly new production planes. UAC acknowledges that the initial prototype is a conversion of an existing airframe, but the Russian military says it wants at least 50 of the bombers and only has 16 Tu-160Ms in total.

Based on the images UAC released of the first prototype, it appears that much of the airframe remains unchanged from its original swing-wing design. The development of the Soviet-era Tu-160, which the Russians nicknamed the Beliy Lebed or White Swan, began in the 1970s and it first flew in 1981. The aircraft did not see combat until 2015, when Russian crews first fired air-launched cruise missiles at targets in Syria.

The M2s will reportedly have new NK-32 02 Series engines, also known as the NK-32 Tier 2. The original low-bypass NK-32 is already among the most power turbofans ever built, with each generating approximately 55,000 pounds of thrust in afterburner at its maximum setting. By comparison, the General Electric F101s on the U.S. Air Force’s B-1 bomber have an output of just under 31,000 pounds at full afterburner. The Tu-160 is significantly larger than the B-1 too, though.

Engine-maker United Engine Corporation (UEC) has said the 02 Series is significantly more efficient and will make the Tu-160M2 less thirsty than its predecessor, and in doing so it will reportedly add more than 600 miles to the jet’s operational range. These engines, or another variant thereof, are also supposedly going to be used on Russia’s PAK-DA stealth bomber project. Tests of the engines began in October 2017, but it is not clear if the initial M2 prototype has them installed.

In addition, Russian officials say the aircraft will feature an entirely new suite of avionics, expanding on the substantial improvements reportedly found on the Tu-160M. The M models already featured a number of enhancement in this regard, but UAC has hinted at the possibility that the M2 will have a fully digital “glass” cockpit.

The front cockpit of an original Tu-160 Blackjack., Alex Beltyukov via Wikimedia

In June 2017, Vladimir Mikheyev, the First Deputy CEO of Radio-Electronic Technologies Group, also known as Concern Radio-Electronic Technologies or by its Russian acronym KRET, told TASS that the Tu-160M2 would carry a variety of new electronic systems. The state-operated firm builds radios, navigation systems, radars, and intelligence gathering equipment for civil and military customers.

Mikheyev said that the new Blackjacks would have, among other things, improved inertial navigation, satellite navigation, and astro-navigation equipment. The latter system was particularly notable as it offered an important backup in the event that the navigation satellite constellation – likely Russia’s GLONASS GPS-equivalent satellite network – failed or suffered an attack. The Russian military has been actively developing its own GPS jamming and spoofing systems, as well as anti-satellite weapons, and would be well aware of the potential threat.

According to Russian media reports, the Tu-160M2s will have a fast-scanning active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. This will allow crews to detect targets and potential threats at longer ranges and with greater precision.

The Tu-160M2 prototype at UAC’s plant in Kazan., UAC

Perhaps more importantly, the new White Swans will supposedly carry a powerful new defensive system that the KRET executive boasted could “protect against all possible types of missiles.” Neither Mikheyev nor TASS offered any specific details about this particularly system, but there are number of possibilities.

At the time, I wrote:

“The executive did not offer any additional details on how the new system or systems for the bombers might defeat incoming threats. TASS’ did add a definition for “defense system” that covered detecting and classifying incoming weapons, as well as destroying them. It is possible and perhaps likely that he could have been referring to a completely new suite of equipment that included optical, infrared, and radar-linked early warning sensors along with jamming gear, lasers able to deflect certain types of missiles, and traditional dispensers loaded with flares and chaff.

“Many of these types of systems, such as direction infrared countermeasures, already exist, but KRET could improve any or all of them by extending the range at which they first spot possible dangers, as Mikheyev alluded to, as well as how fast and actively defenses respond to the threat. The gear could involve more revolutionary technology, such as electrically-powered solid-state lasers or other systems that actually knock down incoming missiles. Another option might be to use highly focused beams of electromagnetic radiation to confuse or even destroy targeting radars or the seekers inside individual weapons. A conformal active electronically scanned radar (AESA) could do double duty in this role and Russia has already begun flying conformal arrays on their T-50 fighter jet prototypes.”

In 2005, President Putin famously tagged along on a mission aboard a Tu-160. The White Swan is a seen as a symbol of nation pride in Russia. , VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images

We don’t know exactly how elaborate this new defensive suite will actually be, but it is also the possibility the Tu-160M2 could one day also feature a so-called “hard-kill” arrangement that uses a physical interceptor to knock down incoming missile. In June 2017, American defense contractor Northrop Grumman patented the design of just such a system for stealth and other aircraft. The new Swans could conceivably have a combination of various types of defensive gear based around a single sensor system, which would give the bombers layers of protection against a variety of threats.

The Tu-160M2 will still perform the same strategic and conventional missions as the older Tu-160Ms, according to Russian officials. Without any new, advanced low-observable features on the M2s, long-range, air-launched, conventional Kh-101 and nuclear Kh-102 cruise missiles that crews can fire at a stand-off distance to try and avoid enemy integrated air defenses will likely continue to be the primary weapon for the new bombers.

But, as with all Russian advanced defense projects, fluctuations in the country’s economy could very well limit the scope of the M2’s final capabilities and the overall size of the fleet.

As already noted, the Kremlin says it plans to purchase at least 50 Tu-160M2s in total. It’s not clear how many prototypes, conversions, or pre-production aircraft this figure includes. We don’t know how many spare, unfinished airframes UAC may have access to or what sort of condition they might be in, either.

Under the Soviet Union, Tupolev, now part of UAC, only ever made a total of 35 Tu-160s, 19 of which were situated in Ukraine when it became independent. Eight of those aircraft came back to Russia in the early 2000s as payment for Ukrainian debts, with the rest apparently being scrapped. With 16 Tu-160s operational, it is possible that eight idle airframes are available for rejuvenation into Tu-160M2 configuration in addition to the 16 jets in service. 

UAC would need to have 26 more airframes available in some for or another to avoid having to restart production of all-new planes, which could be a costly proposition. Regardless of where the aircraft come from, if the company delivers two or three of the bombers starting in 2023, as it has planned, it could still easily take more than a decade for the Russian Air Force to get the final examples.

Still, the country has already had to curtail a variety of defense programs in recent years due to the low price of oil, an important Russian export, and international economic sanctions in response to Moscow’s interventions in Ukraine and Syria. The flagging economy had a particularly visible impact on the PAK FA stealth fighter project. 

The Kremlin originally planned to have 150 of the planes in service by 2020. After more than seven years of flight testing, the Russian Air Force has less than a dozen aircraft, which is the extent of its present purchase order. The service is still hoping to take delivery of the 10th and 11th pre-production aircraft by the end of 2017, but the ninth jet only arrived in September.

The Kremlin has already acknowledged that the decision to pursue the Tu-160M2 allowed it to “reschedule” – that is delay – the PAK DA stealth bomber program. UAC has yet to even release any official concept art of that aircraft. 

The M2 work will be competing for resources with both that project and routine maintenance and major overhauls of the existing 16 Tu-160Ms. At least the aircraft maker had the presence of mind to turn down a request for an unnamed Russian oligarch to try and turn one of the Swans into a high-speed luxury jet.

Workers at UAC’s facility in Kazan overhaul one of Russia’s 16 Tu-160Ms in 2016., Maksim Bogodvid/Sputnik via AP

Of course, it is likely that UAC, as well as other Russian defense companies, will be able to leverage significant portions of the work it has done on the new Blackjacks to support the PAK DA and help shorten development times and save money. As noted, the two designs will reportedly share the same engine. It might be possible to port over advanced defensive systems and other electronic components from the Tu-160M2 to the all-new bomber with a minimum of effort. 

But if the Tu-160M2 really does make it deep into new production, it is unlikely the PAK DA will become a reality anytime soon. New or upgraded Swans would already offer a cheaper path to improving and expanding Russia’s strategic capabilities compared to a costly and complex clean-sheet stealth design.

The M2 modernization plan appears to have already suffered their own delays, though. In 2016, Colonel General Viktor Bondarev, head of the Russian Air Force, told state-run news outlet RIA Novosti that serial production was supposed to start in 2021, not 2023.

Photo by Marina LystsevaTASS via Getty Images

In speaking with Putin in November 2017, Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin insisted flight Tu-160M2 flight tests would begin in February 2018, as well. At the same time, TASS noted that Bondarev had earlier said only that this “might” happen by then.

This isn’t taking into account the costs the Russian military would incur in sustaining a fleet of 50 Blackjacks of any kind, either. This is more than three times the number of Tu-160s the Russian Air Force presently has to maintain and it isn’t clear how many of those White Swans are actually operational at any one time.

Russian authorities have made clear that modernizing the country’s strategic bomber fleet is a major defense priority, but that may still not be enough to ensure the aircraft arrive on schedule or with the full list of promised features.

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