Russian Program to Modernize Its Strategic Bomber Fleet off to a Modest Start
Russia's first new Tu-160 in years has reached final assembly, but it's probably an airframe the factory had in storage since 1992
Rossiyskaya gazeta reports the first Russian Tu-160M2 airframe has reached final assembly at Tupolev’s Kazan Aircraft Plant (KAZ). But it may not necessarily be new or significantly different from the last Tu-160 / Blackjack produced at KAZ.
RG picked up the story of the first Tu-160M2 from Kazan-based news service Biznes Online which follows plant newspaper Vpered.
Assembly of bombers at KAZ ended in 1992 with four airframes “in reserve” in various stages of production. Two were completed in 2000 and 2008 with two left unfinished at the factory.
For many years, Russian defense industries depended on their Soviet “reserve” [задел]. The “reserve” could be anything from materials to parts to money to technical know-how that helps an enterprise survive lean times. In many instances, they were wartime mobilization supplies. The “reserve” grew out of the Soviet command economy in which a factory would hoard extra resources to use against future production plans. But, over the years, defense industries steadily depleted whatever Soviet-era “reserve” they had. Another classic case of the “reserve” is Sevmash using unfinished Akula-class SSN hull sections to build the first three Borey-class SSBNs.
The plant has reestablished its vacuum annealing and electron beam welding processes to fabricate Tu-160 airframes. But the Tu-160M2 will depend on many subsystems, components, and parts from a large number of suppliers.
New avionics, navigation, weapons control, and electronic warfare systems aren’t due until series production. The bomber’s principal weapon, a new long-range, high-speed “smart” cruise missile known as Kh-BD, remains in development.
Production of updated NK-32-02 turbofan engines, which has only just begun at PAO Kuznetsov in Samara, could be the most difficult task. In early 2016, Biznes wrote that the company needed to make five engines that year, and 22 per year starting this year. However, it reported that Kuznetsov is “not in very good condition.”
For these reasons, KAZ workers themselves are skeptical about successfully resurrecting bomber production, according to Biznes.
RG indicated Trade and Industry Minister Denis Manturov stated in early 2017 the initial Tu-160M2 would come from the factory’s “reserve” and be ready for flight testing in 2018. Deputy Defense Minister and arms tsar Yuriy Borisov has also said early 2018. According to Interfaks-AVN, Tupolev announced an “experimental” Tu-160M2 would fly in 2019.
Biznes indicated completely new Tu-160M2 bombers — not Soviet legacy airframes — might not appear until 2020, reaching a rate of three per year by 2023.
Interviewed by Krasnaya zvezda while visiting KAZ in early May, Borisov fully reiterated Russia’s plans for its strategic bombers: all existing Tu-160, Tu-95MS, and Tu-22M3 will be modernized, 50 Tu-160M2 will be produced, and the prospective PAK DA will fly in 2025-2026 and enter production in 2028-2029.
For its part, in its recent “Russia [sic] Military Power” publication, U.S. military intelligence notes:
“. . . all existing Tu-160s will be upgraded to Tu-160M1 or M2. Russia has announced that it will resume production of Tu-160M2 bombers and complete development of a new generation bomber (Russian designation: PAK-DA) within a decade . . . .”
But such troubles arose two or three years ago and Moscow’s economic woes make ambitious, if not grandiose, strategic bomber programs unaffordable. The burden of upgrading every existing bomber while developing a new one like the B-2 will be incompatible with declining defense budgets.
Yet strategic nuclear forces are an undeniable priority for the Kremlin and bombers figure as something of a hedge against U.S. missile defense systems.
Russian President Vladimir Putin loves the impression bombers make. In 2007, he restarted regular strategic bomber patrols along NATO borders to signal Russian intent to become more assertive abroad.
He has also sent Tu-160 bombers to Venezuela and Nicaragua in a show-the-flag campaign. The Tu-160 flew its first combat mission over Syria in 2015.
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