Tupolev Tu-160 White Swan
The Tupolev Tu-160 (Russian: Туполев Ту-160, NATO reporting name: Blackjack) is a supersonic, variable-sweep wing heavy strategic bomber designed by the Tupolev Design Bureau in the Soviet Union. Although several civil and military transport aircraft are larger in overall dimensions, the Tu-160 is currently the world’s largest combat aircraft, largest supersonic aircraft, and largest variable-sweep aircraft built. In addition, the Tu-160 has the heaviest takeoff weight of any military aircraft besides transports.
Entering service in 1987, the Tu-160 was the last strategic bomber designed for the Soviet Union. The aircraft remains in limited production, with at least 16 aircraft currently in service with the Russian Air Force.
The first competition for a supersonic strategic heavy bomber was launched in the Soviet Union in 1967. In 1972, the Soviet Union launched a new multi-mission bomber competition to create a new supersonic, variable-geometry (“swing-wing”) heavy bomber with a maximum speed of Mach 2.3, in direct response to the US Air Force B-1 bomber project. The Tupolev design, dubbed Aircraft 160M, with a lengthened flying wing layout and incorporating some elements of the Tu-144, competed against the Myasishchev M-18 and the Sukhoi T-4 designs.
Work on the new Soviet bomber continued despite an end to the B-1A, and in the same year, the design was accepted by the government committee. The prototype was photographed by an airline passenger at a Zhukovsky Airfield in November 1981, about a month before the aircraft’s first flight on 18 December 1981. Production was authorized in 1984, beginning at Kazan Aircraft Production Association. Production of the aircraft, designated Tu-160 (factory designation “aircraft K” or “product 70”), was originally intended to total 100 aircraft, although only 35 have been produced, including three prototypes.
In 2006, the Russian Air Force was expected to receive five modernised and one new-built Tu-160. The Russian Air Force will receive a further five modernized Tu-160s each year, which means that modernization of the fleet could be achieved within three years if the schedule is kept up.
Changes announced include completely digital, multireserved, neutron and other nuclear emissions resistant avionics; full support of cruising and steering through GLONASS global satellite positioning system; and an updated version the of the NK-32 engine with increased reliability. Weapon upgrades will allow the use of new nuclear/non-nuclear GLONASS-navigated cruise missiles (Kh-55), and drop laser-guided bombs. Planned upgrades are also to add the ability to handle missiles that launch military or civil satellites; and addition of advanced radar emissions absorbing coatings.
The Tu-160 is a variable-geometry wing aircraft, with sweep selectable from 20° to 65°. The aircraft employs a fly-by-wire control system with a blended wing profile and full-span slats are used on the leading edges, with double-slotted flaps on the trailing edges. The variable geometry gives conventional takeoff, and efficient subsonic cruise, while also permitting Mach 2 flight.
The Tu-160 is powered by four Kuznetsov NK-321 afterburning turbofan engines, the most powerful ever fitted to a combat aircraft. Unlike the American B-1B Lancer, which reduced the original Mach 2+ requirement for the B-1A to achieve a smaller radar profile, the Tu-160 retains variable intakes, and is capable of reaching Mach 2 speed at altitude. The NK-321 turbofans are efficient for subsonic cruise, but suboptimal for supersonic flight due to inlet drag.
The Tu-160 is equipped with a probe-and-drogue in-flight refueling system for extended-range missions, although it is rarely used. The Tu-160’s internal fuel capacity of 130 tons gives the aircraft a roughly 15 hour flight endurance at a cruise speed of around 850 km/h (Mach 0.77, 530 mph) at 9,145 m (30,003 ft). In February 2008, Tu-160 bombers and Il-78 refueling tankers practiced air refueling during air combat exercise, as well as MiG-31, A-50 and other Russian combat aircraft.
Although the Tu-160 was designed for reduced detect-ability to both radar and infrared, it is not a stealth aircraft. Nevertheless, Lt. Gen. Igor Khvorov claimed that Tu-160s managed to penetrate the US sector of the Arctic undetected on 25 April 2006, leading to a USAF investigation according to a Russian source.
The Tu-160 has an Obzor-K attack radar in a slightly upturned dielectric radome, and a separate “Sopka” terrain-following radar, which provides fully automatic terrain-following flight at low altitude. The Tu-160 has an electro-optical bombsight. Its electronic warfare suite includes comprehensive active and passive electronic countermeasures (ECM) systems.
The Tu-160 has a crew of four (pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, and defensive systems operator) in K-36DM ejection seats. The pilot has a fighter-style control stick, but the flight instruments are traditional “steam gauge” dials. A crew rest area, a toilet, and a galley are provided for long flights. There is no Head-Up Display (HUD), nor are CRT multi-function displays provided in the original aircraft.
Weapons are carried in two internal bays, each capable of holding 20,000 kg (44,400 lb) of free-fall weapons or a rotary launcher for nuclear missiles; additional missiles may also be carried externally. The aircraft’s total weapons load capacity is 40,000 kg (88,185 lb). However, no defensive weapons are provided; the Tu-160 is the first unarmed post-World War II Soviet bomber.
A demilitarized, commercial version of the Tu-160, named Tu-160SK, was displayed at Asian Aerospace in Singapore in 1994 with a model of a small space vehicle named Burlak attached underneath the fuselage. In 1995 Tupolev announced a partnership with the German firm OHB-System to produce the aircraft as a carrier for the launch vehicle; the German government subsequently withdrew funding in 1998.
While similar in appearance to the American B-1 Lancer, the Tu-160 is a different class of combat aircraft, its primary role being a standoff missile platform (strategic missile carrier). The Tu-160 is also larger and faster than the B-1B and has a slightly greater combat range, though the B-1B has a larger combined payload. Another significant difference is that the color scheme on the B-1B Lancer is usually radar-absorbent black, the Tu-160 is painted with anti-flash white, giving it the nickname among Russian airmen “White Swan”.
No dedicated Tu-160 trainer version has been built. Pilot training was initially conducted using Tupolev Tu-22M bombers. The Tu-134UBL, a highly modified variant of the Tupolev Tu-134 airliner, was subsequently used.
Squadron deployments to Long Range Aviation began in April 1987 before the Tu-160 was first presented to the public in a parade in 1989. In 1989 and 1990 it set 44 world speed flight records in its weight class. Until 1991, 19 aircraft served in the 184th Guards Heavy Bomber Regiment (GvTBAP) in Pryluky in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, replacing Tu-16 and Tu-22M3 aircraft. In January 1992, Boris Yeltsin decided to discontinue production of the Tu-160. By this time, 35 aircraft had been built. In the same year, Russia unilaterally suspended its flights of strategic aviation in remote regions.
The Fall of the Soviet Union saw 19 of 35 aircraft stationed in the newly-independent Ukraine. On 25 August 1991, the Ukrainian parliament decreed that the country would take control of all military units on its territory and a Defense Ministry was created the same day.
By the mid 1990s, the Pryluky Regiment had lost its value as a combat unit. The 184th GvTBAP’s 19 “Blackjacks” were effectively grounded because of a lack of technical support, spare parts and fuel. At this point in time, Ukraine considered the Tu-160s more of a bargaining chip in their economic negotiations with Russia. Certainly, they were of very limited value to Ukraine from a military standpoint, but discussions with Russia concerning their return bogged down. The main bone of contention was the price. While Russian experts, who examined the aircraft at the Pryluky Air Base in 1993 and 1996, assessed their technical condition as good, the price of $3 billion demanded by Ukraine was unacceptable. The negotiations led to nowhere and in April 1998, Ukraine decided to commence scrapping the aircraft under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Agreement. In November, the first Tu-160 was ostentatiously chopped up at Pryluky.
In April 1999, immediately after NATO began its air attacks against Serbia, Russia resumed talks with Ukraine about the strategic bombers. This time they proposed buying back eight Tu-160s and three Tu-95MS models manufactured in 1991 (those in the best technical condition), as well as 575 Kh-55MS missiles. An agreement was finally reached and a contract valued at $285 million was signed. That figure was to be deducted from Ukraine’s debt for natural gas.
A group of Russian military experts went to Ukraine on 20 October 1999 to prepare the aircraft for the trip to Engels-2 air base. The first two (a Tu-160 and a Tu-95MS) departed Pryluky on 5 November. During the months that followed, the other seven “Blackjacks” were brought to Engels, with the last two arriving on 21 February 2001.
Along with the re-purchase of the aircraft from Ukraine, Russia’s Defense Ministry sought other ways of rebuilding the fleet at Engels. In June 1999, the Ministry placed a contract with the Kazan Aircraft Production Association for a delivery of a single, almost complete, bomber. The aircraft was the second aircraft in the eighth production batch and it arrived at Engels on 10 September. It was commissioned into service as “07” on 5 May 2000.
The unit that was operating the fleet from Engels was 121st Guards Heavy Bomber Regiment. It formed up in the spring of 1992 and by 1994 it had received 6 aircraft. By the end of February 2001, the fleet grew to 15. The Regiment continues to serve in its role.
Vladimir Putin inspected the inside the cabin of a Tu-160 in August 2005 and was pleased at what he saw.
There were 14 Tu-160s in service as of November 2005. Another two new-built aircraft were nearing completion at the Kazan Aircraft Plant, one of which was due to enter service in March 2006, with the other following later in the year. As of 2001, six additional Tu-160 have served as experimental aircraft at Zhukovski, four remaining airworthy. On 30 December 2005, under an order signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Tu-160 officially entered service in the Russian Air Force.
On 17 August 2007, Putin announced that Russia was resuming the strategic aviation flights stopped in 1991, sending its bomber aircraft on long-range patrols. On 14 September 2007, British and Norwegian fighters intercepted two Tu-160s which breached NATO airspace near the UK and Finland. On 25 December 2007, two Blackjacks came close to Danish airspace, and two Danish Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons scrambled to intercept and identify them.
According to Russian government sources, on 11 September 2007, a Tu-160 was used to drop the massive fuel-air explosive device, the Father of all bombs, for its first field test. However, some military analysts expressed skepticism that the weapon was actually delivered by a Blackjack.
On 28 December 2007, the first flight of a new Tu-160 was reported to have taken place following completion of the aircraft at the Kazan Aviation Plant. After flight testing, the bomber joined the Russian Air Force on 29 April 2008, bringing the total number of aircraft in service to 16. One new Tu-160 is expected to be built every one to two years until the active inventory reaches 30 or more aircraft by 2025–2030.
On 10 September 2008 two Russian Tu-160 landed in Venezuela as part of military maneuvers, announcing an unprecedented deployment to Russia’s ally at a time of increasingly tense relations between Russia and the United States. The Russian Ministry of Defense said the two Tu-160 bombers were on a training mission. It said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies, that the aircraft would conduct training flights over neutral waters before returning to Russia. Its spokesman added that the aircraft were escorted by NATO fighters as they flew across the Atlantic Ocean.
On 12 October 2008, a number of Tu-160 bombers were involved in the largest Russian strategic bomber exercise since 1984. A total of 12 bombers including Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95 Bear conducted a series of launches of their cruise missiles. Some bombers launched a full complement of their missiles. It was the first time that a Tu-160 had ever fired a full complement of missiles.
On 10 June 2010, two Tu-160 bombers carried out a record-breaking 23-hour patrol with a planned flight range of 18,000 kilometers. The bombers flew along the Russian borders and over neutral waters in the Arctic and Pacific Oceans.