Anti-carrier striker


Piotr Butowski presents the Backfire’s past, present and future

Tu-22MS 98-04 loaded with two Kh-32M test articles.
All photos Piotr Butowski unless noted

Between 1969 and 1993, the Tupolev factory at Kazan built 514 Tu-22M Backfire bombers of all versions; 268 of them were Tu-22M3 Backfire-Cs, the last version to be built. At the end of the USSR, Soviet military aviation had about 380 Backfires on strength, 60% in the Air Force and 40% in the Navy. After the dissolution of the USSR on December 26, 1991, and within the 12 independent post-Soviet states, Tu-22 aircraft remained in just two: Russia and Ukraine. The last Ukrainian Tu-22M3 was scrapped in 2006. The Tu-22M was never exported.

The number of aircraft quickly decreased. Today, Russia’s long-range bomber force has about 60 Tu-22Ms assigned to three operational bases, the 200th TBAP (Tyazholyi Bombardirovotchnyi Aviatsyonnyi Polk, Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment) at Belaya, the 52nd TBAP at Shaykovka and the 40the SAP (Smeshannyi Aviatsyonnyi Polk, Composite Aviation Regiment) at Olenyegorsk, and at the 43rd Combat Application and Flight Crew Conversion Centre in Ryazan. The only operational variant of the Backfire is the Tu- 22M3, except for two Tu-22MR (izdeliye 45.09) reconnaissance versions.


The Tu-22M3 is a nuclear and conventional theatre-level bomber and missile carrier. During the Cold War, the primary targets for about 150 Backfires assigned to the Soviet Navy would have been the US Navy’s aircraft carriers and cruisers armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles operating in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean.

With the express purpose of defending US Navy aircraft carriers against Tu-22Ms, the Grumman F-14A Tomcat interceptor was developed and introduced to US Navy service in 1974. Attacking an aircraft carrier is far from easy, because it is protected by a multi-layered air defence system. The Soviets calculated that destroying an aircraft carrier would have required 40 aircraft (that is, two two-squadron regiments of missile carriers) supported by Tu-16 electronic warfare aircraft as escort jammers. Years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the number of Tu-22Ms remaining in Navy service fell below a level that was considered dangerous. Moreover, Russia had no escort jammers, without which an attack against an aircraft carrier would have little chance of success. In 2006, the US Navy finally retired its F-14s. Several years later, in 2011, Russia transferred the Backfires remaining in the Navy to the Air Force, which continues maritime tasking.

Over land, the main tasks for the Tu-22M are strikes on important targets like command posts, bridges, railway hubs, airfields, missile sites and areas holding large concentration of troops up to 1,080 nautical miles (2,000km) behind the frontline. During the Cold War, in the event of a global conflict with NATO, Backfires were tasked to cut Europe off from supporting American forces. This would have involved destroying harbours and airfields able to host American strategic transport ships and aircraft. Russia’s long-range aviation force uses forward airfields in the far north of Russia to be closer to targets in North America. In October 2017, a Tu-22M3 bomber flown by Colonel Golubinsky from the 200th TBAP at Belaya made the first ever Tu-22M3 landing at Anadyr airfield on Chukotka, 377 nautical miles (700km) from Alaska; it flew with stopovers at Ukrainka and Yelizovo.

Tu-22Ms under repair and upgrade at the Kazan plant.
United Aircraft Corporation
Front cockpit of a Tu-22M3 cockpit.
Aft cockpit of a Tu-22M3 cockpit.
A Russian Air Force Tu-22M3 loaded with a single Kh-22 missile photographed by a Kongelige Norske Luftforsvaret F-16 during a standard interception in 2014.
Kongelige Norske Luftforsvaret

At war

Backfires have seen action in several local wars where they have employed free-fall bombs, and not the heavy supersonic missiles that are their main weapons. Soviet Tu-22M2s bombed targets in Afghanistan for the first time in 1984. On a second occasion between October 1988 and January 1989, Tu-22M3s bombed the approaches to roads being used by Soviet troops evacuating from Afghanistan.

In Chechnya, between November 1994 and January 1996, Tu-22M3s conducted over 100 sorties dropping mainly free-fall bombs and others used to illuminate the battlefield. During the Tu-22M’s third conflict, Russia’s war with Georgia in August 2008, the backfire suffered its first (and only) combat loss. On August 9, 2008, a group of bombers from Shaykovka was bombing targets near Gori in central Georgia. On their return to base, one of the Tu-22Ms was shot down by a Georgian surface-to-air missile. Only one of the four crewmembers (the co-pilot) survived.

Between November 2015 and August 2018, Backfires flew 369 sorties over Syria while temporarily deployed to Mozdok airfield in Northern Ossetia. For a brief period in August 2016, Tu-22M3s made use of Hamedan Air Base in Iran for refuelling. During Russia’s Syrian campaign, Backfires tended to drop salvoes of 12 250kg free-fall bombs. Salvoes were reduced to ten in the summer of 2016 and subsequently to six bombs.

Tu-22M3M mid-life upgrade

On December 28, 2018, the first upgraded Tu-22M3M, 42 Blue registered RF-94267, performed its first flight from the Kazan aircraft factory’s airfield. Piloted by Oleg Petunin, the aircraft spent 37 minutes in flight and reached the altitude of 4,921ft. Speaking at the rollout of aircraft 42 blue in August, President of United Aircraft Corporation Yury Slyusar said, “some years of tests are ahead”, but the first aircraft for the Air Force is being upgraded in parallel with the tests, “with deliveries starting 2021”. Tupolev’s CEO Alexander Konyukhov said the second upgraded aircraft will be ready in the spring of 2019.

If Russian authorities state, after the evaluation, the modernised Tu-22M3M has huge potential, they may decide to overhaul and upgrade not only the operational aircraft, but also some older examples. Several dozen aircraft remain in storage at aircraft depots or lie abandoned at various airfields (about 25 at Olenyegorsk and about 20 at Belaya), some of which may be returned to service after restoration and upgrade.

The mid-life upgrade programme of the Tu-22M3 to Tu-22M3M (izdeliye 45.03M) standard has been restarted several times. The programme first began as early as June 1990, when the USSR’s MoD ordered Tupolev to undertake research and development for a work order dubbed Adaptation-45.03M. A new standard of radar was at the heart of the project, which involved upgrading the outdated PNA radar to a new version developed by the Phazotron-NIIR company designated PNA-D. However, only a few PNA-D radars were completed and series upgrades were abandoned.

In the next attempt of 2007, the Leninets Company of St Petersburg adapted a Novella radar, originally developed for the Il-38N maritime patrol aircraft, for the Tu-22M3; the adapted Novella radar is designated the Novella-45 (NV45) and is specifically for the Backfire. In 2008, Tu-22M3 9804 was retrofitted with a prototype NV45. Then in the early part of this decade, an electronic-scanning radar developed by the NIIP Company was considered for the Backfire, but this did not materialise and the previous plan was reinstated. Between 2014 and 2015, Leninets delivered four NV45 radars to Kazan, which were fitted to four newly repaired Tu-22M3s; one of them, 10 Red, RF-94146 (c/n 109-05) crashed in June 2016.

The tail configuration of a Tu-22M3 showing the gun turret and electronic warfare sensors.

A contract for the current Tu-22M3M research and development programme was signed by the MoD on September 24, 2014, and includes development of a modernised NV45M (Novella-45M) already fitted to aircraft RF-94267, the first Tu-22M3M. Aircraft RF- 94267 is also equipped with a U001M missile armament control system that is compatible with all new weapons.

Other new systems included in the contract are an advanced NO-45.03M navigation suite with INS-2000-04 inertial navigation, S-505- 45 communication suite, 623-3D-23 IFF, and a digitally controlled ABSU-145MTs flight control system. The UKBP Design Bureau in Ulyanovsk has developed a new ‘glass’ flight deck display system, and the previous L229 Ural-M self-defence suite has been replaced with the L501 Redut-45M. According to an official MoD announcement, 80% of the Tu- 22M3M’s on-board avionics is new and “made of indigenous electronic components”, and are common systems also used on the Tu- 160M Blackjack. The original NK-25 engines remain, but their control systems and the fuel supply system are new; completely new is the TA18-100-45 auxiliary power unit.

Two external changes distinguish the upgraded Backfire. The rear gun turret has been removed and replaced by elements of the Redut-45M self-defence suite. A longitudinal fairing now appears on the nose, resembling an aerial refuelling probe. However, there are no shutters and other movable elements visible, so the fairing is likely to be associated with avionics elements.

In September 2018, the United States expressed concern that the planned Tu- 22M 3M modernisation gives the aircraft heavy bomber capabilities that may conflict with terms of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed between Russia and the United States in April 2010.

In December, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported to the US Senate that the Tu- 22M 3M modernisation “will prolong the service life of the aircraft, and improve its systems of manoeuvrability [flight control system], navigation and use of air weapon systems. At the same time, the range of the bomber will be below 8,000km, and it will not be equipped for nuclear ALCMs with a range exceeding 600km.” According to the Russian statement, this means the Tu-22M3M “will not fall under the limitations of the New START Treaty”.

It remains unclear from Russia’s response, whether the Tu-22M 3M be equipped with an aerial refuelling system or not. In a separate protocol from the 1979 SALT-2 Treaty, the former USSR did not install an aerial refuelling system on its Backfires, which was superseded by the 1991 START Treaty.


The Backfire’s primary armament is the dedicated Kh-22 (AS-4 Kitchen) missile, used only by the Tu-22M3. It is a heavy, 6,000kg (13,200lb) missile made of welded titanium and steel alloys that can be launched at supersonic speed and accelerate to and cruise at Mach 3, and further accelerate to Mach 4.15 in the dive of its terminal phase of flight. One version fitted with an activeradar seeker is used against ships; another version uses Doppler radar navigation used for destroying stationary area targets with a nuclear charge. Maximum range is 275 nautical miles (510km), or 189 nautical miles (350km) for the anti-shipping version. The Backfire’s nominal weapon load is 6,000kg (13,200lb), equivalent to a single Kh-22 missile; any greater weapon payload compromises the total fuel load. Free-fall bombs can be carried inside the bomb bay and on four external multiple racks.

Tu-22M3M armament will include a new missile, the Raduga Kh-32, a direct successor to the Kh-22. Retaining the same shape and size as the Kh-22, the Kh-32 features a new engine control system and an optimised flight profile that is reckoned to provide twice the range. The Kh-32 entered low-scale production around 2005, while the upgraded Kh-32M entered testing in 2012. It is probably the case that the Kh-32 only exists as an anti-shipping weapon. Two other missile types under development for the Tu-22M3M are the subsonic Kh-SD and the hypersonic Kh-MT, both with an expected range of 810–1,080 nautical miles (1,500–2,000km).

Low-cost option

The Gefest & T Company of Zhukovsky has integrated the SVP-24-22 avionics suite previously developed for Sukhoi Su-24M tactical bomber on the Tu-22M3. The suite comprises the SV-24 computer, SRNS-24 navigation system, and two new displays added to the navigator’s instrument panel. Unchanged is the PNA radar, but its image is now digitally processed. According to Gefest & T, the system provides 8 to 10 times more accuracy for navigation and the precise delivery of free-fall bombs.

The first SVP-24-22-equipped Tu-22M3, 37 registered RF-94145, underwent trials in 2009. In 2012, the Russian Air Force ordered serial upgrades and the first four aircraft were upgraded the same year; 30 are reportedly to be upgraded. The Tu-22M3 SVP-24-22 versions were used in Syria.

A pair of Russian Air Force Tu-22M3s in a slick configuration.