Blackjack back in the ring


Development of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces is the priority for Moscow’s military, and the aviation component is represented by resumption of series production of the Tu-160 Blackjack. Piotr Butowski analyses

Tu-160 10 Nikolay Kuznetsov on final approach to Engels Air Base.
All images Piotr Butowski unless noted

In public, the idea of resuming series production of the Tu-160 Blackjack bomber as the upgraded Tu-160M2 version was first disclosed by the Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Shoygu on April 29, 2015, during a visit to the Kazan aircraft plant. The government’s decision had probably been made slightly earlier. Suitable research and development work was ordered from Tupolev and its suppliers.

On January 25, 2019 at Kazan, in the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s Ministry of Defence signed an order for the first ten new Tu-160M2 bombers each priced of RUB 15 billion, having declared its intention to purchase 50 new Tu-160M2 Blackjacks. The first is supposed to take off for the first time in 2021, though that date seems a little improbable.

Series production is forecast to begin in 2023 at a rate of three aircraft per year. This resumption will be beneficial for maintaining the current Tu-160 fleet, which increasingly often lacks spare parts for overhaul.

Changes introduced to the government’s technology development programme for the defence industry in 2015 demonstrate the importance of the Tu-160 project.

Sixteen new assignments were added to the programme, all associated with resumption of Tu-160 production, and at the same time as many as 54 of 178 assignments concerning the aircraft industry were cancelled because of a lack of money.

Commenting on resumption of Tu-160 production, President of United Aircraft Corporation Yuri Slyusar described it as a “giant project, unprecedented in the post-Soviet history of our aircraft industry, implemented in cooperation with all leading firms of the Russian aircraft industry”.

Renewal of production demands renovation of production tooling in Kazan, particularly for the long titanium panels used for the Tu-160’s wing. A lack of personnel is another problem; those involved in the original Tu- 160 production are retired. Construction of a new final assembly hall is planned. Aerosila has resumed production of gearboxes used to change the wing-sweep, and Hydromash has secured an order for landing gears. New mission systems and weapons are also under development.

Further Tu-160 operation – particularly new aircraft production – requires a supply of new engines, which are to be provided by the Kuznetsov Company of Samara. The company was contracted in August 2014 to restart production of NK-32 turbofans in the upgraded NK-32-02 version, after a 25-year pause.

Development of the NK-32-02 started as far back as 1987, but never entered production for financial reasons. Improvements on the NK-32-02 are better profiles of both compressor and turbine blades, better internal aerodynamics and more efficient cooling. As a result, fuel consumption has been reduced, while the 245.1kN (55,100lb) take-off thrust remains unchanged. Tupolev reckons that during tests with NK-32-02 engines, a Tu-160 with basic load of six cruise missiles (a payload of 9,000kg/19,800lb) reached a range of 7,350 nautical miles (13,950km), 890 nautical miles (650km) further than the standard version.

Preparing for new production, in 2017, the factory at Kazan completed one of two airframes which remained there from the Soviet period. The new Tu-160 is aircraft 8-04, the fourth aircraft from the eighth production series, and the 35th aircraft of this variant, not counting ground test prototypes. It is named Pyotr Deynekin, after the Air Force’s former commander-in-chief (operational Tu-160s are named after pilots, air commanders, aircraft designers and popular heroes).

Tu-160 Valentin Bliznyuk during its upgrade at the Kazan plant in March 2016.
This image of Tu-160 11 Vasily Senko at Engels Air Base shows the vertical stabiliser rotated to the right.
A Kh-101 missile moments after release from the weapon bay of a Tu-160 before rocket motor ignition bound for a target in Syria on November 17, 2016.
Russian Ministry of Defence

Tu-160 production at the Gorbunov Kazan Aviation Plant lasted between 1984 and 1994, after which four unfinished airframes remained. Aircraft 8-02 was finished and handed over to the Air Force in 1999, followed by 8-03 in 2007, 8-04 Pyotr Deynekin was flown in December 2017, and 8-05 remains in the factory.

Current service

Russian long-range aviation currently operates 16 Tu-160s (not counting aircraft 8-04) assigned to the 121st TBAP (Tyazholyi Bombardirovotchnyi Aviatsyonnyi Polk, Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment) based at Engels; six of them are upgraded examples configured to M1 standard. One more aircraft, Valentin Bliznyuk, belongs to Tupolev and based at Zhukovsky; it is used as a prototype for subsequent upgrades. There are other airframes at Zhukovsky but these are beyond repair.

In March 1987, aircraft 1-02 crashed after engine failure soon after take-off from Zhukovsky airfield; the crew ejected and survived. On September 18, 2003, aircraft 01 crashed 40km (25 miles) east of Engels killing all four crew. The catastrophe was caused by a failure of the fuel tanks venting system; the wing torsion box broke after the fuel contained under pressure was used up.

In its primary intercontinental mission as a strategic missile carrier, the Tu-160 flies at a speed of Mach 0.77 at high altitude to attain a maximum range of 6,640 nautical miles (12,300km) without aerial refuelling, with six Kh-55 missiles dropped mid-range.

When operated in a tactical role, the aircraft penetrates enemy air defences flying at a dash speed of Mach 1.63 (2,000km/h) at high altitude; the combat radius at Mach 1.5 is 1,080 nautical miles (2,000km). The planned capability to fly at low-level and Mach 0.84 (1,030km/h) using an automatic terrain following system has not been implemented.

Weapons are carried exclusively inside two tandem weapon bays; basic armament for a strategic mission comprises six (to a maximum of 12) long-range subsonic missiles, either the Raduga Kh-55SM, Kh-555, Kh-101 or Kh-102 installed on revolving launchers. One six-round launcher is carried in each bay.

Loading a Kh-101 missile into a Tu-160’s weapon bay.
Russian Ministry of Defence


The Tu-160’s history started on November 28, 1967, when the Soviet government opened a competition for a supersonic strategic bomber able to cruise between Mach 2.61 and Mach 2.85 (3,200-3,500km/h) with a maximum range between 8,630 and 9,720 nautical miles (16,000 and 18,000km); no design bureau was able to fulfil this specification.

In 1972, scaled-down requirements called for a speed of Mach 2.04 (2,500km/h), subsequently reduced again to Mach 1.63 (2,000km/h) with a maximum subsonic range between 7,560 and 8,630 nautical miles (16,000 and 18,000km).

Tupolev’s project was designated izdeliye 70, though izdeliye K was also approved. Prototype 70-01 made the type’s maiden flight on December 18, 1981, piloted by Boris Veremey. In April 1987, the first two Tu-160s arrived at the 184th TBAP (Tyazholyi Bombardirovotchnyi Aviatsyonnyi Polk, Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment) at Pryluky, Ukraine; the first operational unit.

On December 30, 2005, the Tu-160 was officially commissioned into service, although Blackjacks had been operated by the Soviet and Russian Air Force from 1987; these years of operation were formally considered as a trial.

An internal shot of a Kh-101 missile falls from the left side weapon bay.
Russian Ministry of Defence
A Kh-101 missile loaded on its launcher inside the weapon bay.
Russian Ministry of Defence
Tail configuration of a Tu-160 showing the electronic countermeasure sensors.

Russian Tu-160s were used in combat for the first time on November 17, 2015, when Kh-101 missiles were launched against targets in Syria; several more missions were flown to launch Kh-101 and Kh-555 missiles. Typical missions to Syria involved aircraft operating from the permanent base at Engels near Saratov, flying over the Caspian Sea to reach Iran and launch their missiles near the Iraqi border.

Russia periodically deploys heavy bombers on out-of-area operations as a power projection tool. The most exotic recent international visit involved two Tu-160s deploying to Venezuela in December 2018; previously Tu-160s visited Venezuela in 2008 and 2013.

Operational Blackjack upgrades

The first significant improvements applied to operational Blackjack aircraft started in 2003 with the introduction converted of previous nuclear Kh-55s; the aircraft type designation was not changed during these adaptations. Since 2011, the aircraft have been able to carry up to 12 new-generation nuclear Kh- 102 and conventional Kh-101 missiles. The Kh-101/Kh-102 is bigger and heavier than the Kh-55SM or Kh-555, so it was necessary to develop a new, stronger six-round rotary launcher for carrying the new missiles in the weapons bays.

The maximum range of a Kh-101 missile is estimated at 2,160 nautical miles (4,000km); range of the Kh-102 nuclear derivative is greater.

Since 2014, the Kazan plant has undertaken upgrades of Tu-160s to Tu- 160M1 standard installing a new navigation system, autopilot and communication suite during major overhauls.

Simultaneously, some original devices seem to have been removed. For example, the modernised aircraft have blind windows for the original OPB-18 electro-optical bomb sight located in a fairing under the nose, suggesting the sights have been disassembled.

The first operational aircraft to be upgraded to M1 standard (after Valentin Bilznyuk, serving Tail configuration of a Tu-160 showing the as a prototype), 18 Andrey Tupolev, was flown at Kazan on November 16, 2014, and handed over to the Air Force on December 19, 2014.

A Tu-160 releases a Kh-101 missile against a target in Syria.
Russian Ministry of Defence
This image depicts the Tu-160’s wing fence.
The flight deck of a Tu-160.
Control panels and instruments of the self-defence operator’s workstation.

Approval for the upgrade to Tu-160M (izdeliye 70M) standard was granted on October 23, 2014; it includes a new radar, flight deck and weapons. The Obzor-K radar will be replaced with a new NV1.70 radar from the Novella family, made by the Zaslon Company (former Leninets). The UKBP Design Bureau at Ulyanovsk is developing a new glass cockpit data display system. An entirely new Redut-70M self-defence suite is being designed for the Tu-160M and Tu-160M2, and the NII Kulon company is developing the BKR- 70M reconnaissance system. Some systems, the NO-70M computerised navigation system with BINS-SP-1 inertial navigation, ANS-2009M astro navigation, DISS-021-70 navigation radar, A737DP satellite navigation receiver, ABSU-200MTs autopilot and S-505- 70 communication suite are already fitted as part of the first-stage M1 upgrade.

Systems developed for the Tu-160M mid-life upgrade will most likely also be used on new Tu-160M2 aircraft. A significant amount of the new equipment, including the Novella radar and Redut self-defence suite, is common to the Tu-22M3M bomber.

On December 28, 2018, without publicity, Tupolev’s Tu-214LMK aircraft made its maiden flight, the same day as the first Tu-22M3M made its maiden flight. The Tu-214LMK is a former passenger aircraft converted to testbed configuration in 2003. LMK (Lyotno- Modeliruyushchyi Kompleks or flying modelling system) is a flying test bed designed to evaluate equipment for the Tu-160M and Tu-160M2, including a Novella radar housed in the long nose.

In the future, the Tu-214 will become the platform used to integrate the Uchebno- Trenirovochnyi Kompleks Dalney Aviatsii (UTK DA or training system for long-range aviation), a role previously undertaken by the Tu- 134UBL for training Tu-22M Backfire crews. The Raduga Company at Dubna is developing the strategic Kh-BD (Bolshoy Dalnosti or long range) missile specifically for the Tu-160M, Tu-160M2 and future PAK DA bombers. Kh-BD is a physically longer version of the Kh-101/Kh-102 to utilise the space available in the Tu-160’s weapons bay.

The Kh-BD is designed to reach a range 50% greater than the basic Kh-101/Kh-102; when Tu-160 design work began in 1972, the bomber was to be armed with two supersonic Kh-45 missiles measuring 10.8m (35.4ft) in length, and the length of the weapon bays was accordingly designed at 11.3m (37.1ft). The Blackjack’s armament was subsequently changed to the more compact 6m (19.7ft) long subsonic Kh-55 (AS-15 Kent) missile at a time when the aircraft’s design was already frozen. Slightly longer than the Kh-55, the Kh-101 measures about 7.4m (24.3ft) in length, which leaves space in the somewhat longer weapon bay.

Tu-160 05 Alexander Golovanov at Engels Air Base.