By Valentin Vasilescu
Translated from French by Alice Decker
The deployment of heavy military equipment and US ballistic missiles at the Russian border forced Russia to find new solutions to defend itself.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree to restart the TU-160 bomber production line at the Tupolev aircraft factory in Kazan. This decision is intended to narrow the gap between the United States and Russia in terms of the number of strategic bombers. The United States has 159 strategic bombers (62 B-1Bs, 78 of the B-52 H, and 19 B-2s), while Russia has only 70 (55 Tu-95s and 15 Tu-160s). In addition, the Pentagon has been proposing to redeploy strategic nuclear bombers and medium-range ballistic missiles in Europe and Asia.
A B-2 Spirit positioning for refueling by a KC-135 Stratotanker over the Pacific, May 30, 2006. (US Air Force photo / Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)
Thirty-five units of the Tupolev Tu-160 were built and they entered service with the Soviet Army in 1987. The bomber has a maximum take-off weight of 275 t and can carry on board a 40 t cargo: guided bombs of different calibers and 24 cruise missiles. The Tu-160 has a variable geometry wing, a maximum speed of 2230 kilometers per hour (Mach 2) and a maximum range of 13900 kilometers (15 hours of continuous flight).
Russia is expected to produce just over 50 new, modernized Tu-160 aircraft. These new aircraft will be added to the Tu-160 bomber fleet inherited from the USSR after its collapse; those planes are also being modernized.
To upgrade the existing 15 Tu-160 bombers, Russia set out to replace all Soviet-era equipment with modern systems. This modernization took place in two phases. In the first phase, completed in 2008, the navigation systems were replaced (GPS equipment was installed, based on the Russian GLONASS network) and new multifunctional weapons systems were installed that can be used for nuclear weapons and for newly emerging conventional weapons (like the Raduga NPO Kh-555, Kh-101 and laser-guided bombs).
In the second phase, the engines are being repaired and replaced, and the on-board radar units and the communication system are replaced, and parts of the liner with composite panels that give a higher degree of radar invisibility. The first flight of a Tu-160M aircraft fully equipped with these new systems took place in November 2014. The upgrades are expected to be completed by 2019. Under the new conditions, the modernization of the existing equipment will go forward in parallel with the construction of new aircraft.
It is not easy to resume production of the Tu-160 bombers, as it is closely linked to the profitability of the Kuznetsov production line in Samara, which produces the four NK-32 engines for the aircraft. The new NK-32 engine weighs 24,900 kgf and has a lower specific fuel consumption, which extends the distance traveled without in-flight refueling to 16,000 km. By contrast, the General Electric F101-GE-102 engines that equip the US supersonic strategic B-1B bombers only weigh 13800 kgf each, delivering a maximum speed of 1,335 km / h.
Kuznetsov, the engine manufacturer, only expects to see a profit with an annual order of thirty to forty engines. That is why the Russian Ministry of Defense is obliged to finance the manufacture of at least fifty Tu-160 aircraft updated within 5–6 years. According to General Colonel Viktor Bondarev, Commander-in-Chief of the Aerospace Forces, resuming production of the Tu-160 will not affect the design of the fifth-generation bomber, PAK DA, which is to be led by Tupolev, and whose first flight is scheduled for 2019. The PAK DA replaces the fleet of the 55 strategic TU-95 turboprop bombers.
Patrol flights in international airspace with the Tu-160s were resumed in 2007 after being suspended for 15 years at the request of Washington. On June 10, 2010, two Tu-160 bombers departed from Engels Air Force Base, setting the world record of continuous flight endurance for 23 hours. Earlier in 2009, the Tu-160 had flown 21 hours without interruption. The bombers traveled 18,000 km, with two in-flight refuelings, around the Russian borders as well as over the Arctic Ocean and the Pacific.