In April 2015, Russian Defense Minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu announced the decision to resume the production of Tu-160 in a modernized version – the Tu-160M2 – and move to the finalization of a new generation bomber PAK DA at a later date. The Tu-160 is a supersonic strategic bomber with variable-sweep wings, designed to engage targets around the globe with nuclear and conventional weapons. With a weapons load of up to 40,000 kg, an unrefueled range of 12,297 km, and a maximum speed of 1,800 km/h, the Tu-160 is one of the most formidable assets in the inventory of Russian Air Space Forces.
By the end of 2016, the upgrade of the Tu-160M2 (NATO reporting name: Blackjack) supersonic, variable-sweep strategic bomber fleet to Tu-160M2 standard is ahead of schedule. The technical documentation is expected to be fully digitized this month. The maiden flight is shifted from 2019 to 2018 with the tests complete in 2021. Then, the Kazan Aircraft Plant will start serial production. The modernization will increase the aircraft’s life span for another 30 years. The Russian military plans to have 50 aircraft upgraded to the M2 standard.
Russia is working on the PAK DA («prospective aviation complex for long-range aviation») new generation strategic bomber. The development is being delayed with the first unit to appear between 2020 and 2025. The upgraded Tu-160 will fill the gap.
Actually, the Tu-160M2 is almost a new plane. The only thing left unchanged is the airframe. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov says the combat effectiveness of the Tu-160M2 will be 2.5 times higher than that of its predecessor. The new bomber will feature completely new mission systems and other improvements over the existing M variant. Using a new version of the Tu-160 airframe would save a lot of money.
The aircraft will be powered by the upgraded version of the existing Kuznetsov NK-32-02 afterburning turbofan. The upgraded engine has better endurance characteristics, which adds to the new bomber's range, increasing it by one thousand kilometers (621mi) as compared with the existing version. The engine features improved performance to make the plane reach stratosphere at an altitude of 18.3 kilometers (60,000 feet or 11.3 mi). The aircraft will cruise at a height beyond the enemy’s air defense systems reach.
The new avionics suite is expected to be ready by 2020 to be subsequently used on the PAK DA next generation strategic bomber. Vladimir Mikheyev, with Radio Electronic Technologies Corp., spoke of the capabilities of the upgraded aircraft’s electronics: «Each of the Tu-160M2’s electronic units will be able to handle all tasks at hand, if need be, e.g. the electronic warfare system will be able to assume the functions of other control systems. If a computer fails, the system allows the resources of the whole plane to be used for dealing with the problem».
Not being stealth, the Tu-160 is believed to be capable of flying undetected across the Arctic.
The systems equipping the missile-carrying bomber will include the Novella-NV1-70 phased-array radar, K-042K-1 duel-channel inertial navigation system and ABSU-200-1 autopilot designed specifically for it. The aircraft will boast a sophisticated fire control system to increase the effectiveness of the world’s longest-range cruise missiles – the Kh-101/Kh-102.
The Tu-160M2 does not feature stealth technology. Its mission is not to penetrate into enemy airspace and deliver its payload. Capable of speeds of over Mach 2.0, the bomber can rapidly take the position to launch long-range standoff cruise missiles. The capability to carry and launch long-range missiles matters much more than the specifications of the aircraft itself.
The weapon to be carried by the Tu-160M2 comes in two variants. The Kh-101 is the conventional variant. It has been fire-tested in Syria. The Kh-102 is the nuclear-tipped variant. The maximum range is 5500 km (3418 miles), a cruise speed of 700-720 km/h (435-447 mi), a maximum speed of 970 km/h (603mi), and an endurance of flight of 10 hours.
Some sources even say that the maximum range is up to 10,000 km (6213mi). A circular error probability of less than about 6 m (30 feet) at the maximum range. The long range enables it to strike targets deep inside the enemy’s territory without threat to the launch platform. The conventional warhead would pack 400 kg (880lbs) of explosives. The nuclear warhead is thought be a 250KT device.
The armament can also include the Kh-555 new-generation long-range winged missiles. The new weapon is a new air-launched cruise missile with a conventional warhead based on the Kh-55 nuclear-armed cruise missile upgraded with Kh-101 technology. The nuclear warhead is replaced by a 500 kg class conventional warhead. The range of the Kh-555 to 2,500-3,000 km (1553-1864mi).
The Russia’s Air Space Forces have received more than 1,200 new and modernized aircraft over the past three years. According to Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov, the armed forces got 250 new planes, 300 helicopters, 700 aircraft that underwent serious modernization with repairs over the past three years, in 2013-2015. The production of Tu-160M2 bombers is an important part of the program to enhance the Air Space Forces conventional and nuclear capability.
In 2015, General Frank Gorenc, former commander of Allied Air Forces and US Air Forces in Europe, said NATO’s air superiority in relation to the Russian military was fading. According to his assessment, «The advantage that we had from the air, I can honestly say, is shrinking».
The strategic bombers provide a credible deterrence against any potential aggressor. The assets also enable Russia to project military power to faraway regions, like Syria, and bolster its superpower status. With a fleet of highly capable Tu-160M2 Russia possesses the ability to meet challenges and threats of any kind at any time.