The Tupolev Tu-160 (Russian: Туполев Ту-160 Белый лебедь, romanized: Belyj Lebeď, lit. 'White Swan'; NATO reporting name: Blackjack) is a supersonic, variable-sweep wing heavy strategic bomber designed by the Tupolev Design Bureau in the Soviet Union in the 1970s. It is the largest and heaviest Mach 2+ supersonic military aircraft ever built and second to the experimental XB-70 Valkyrie in overall length. As of 2022, it is the largest and heaviest combat aircraft, the fastest bomber in use and the largest and heaviest variable-sweep wing airplane ever flown.
|Tu-160 Belyy Lebed|
|Tupolev Tu-160 Aleksandr Novikov in flight over Russia, May 2014|
|Role||Supersonic strategic heavy bomber|
|National origin||Soviet Union|
|Built by||Kazan Aircraft Production Association|
|First flight||18 December 1981|
|Primary users||Russian Aerospace Forces|
Soviet Air Forces (historical)
Ukrainian Air Force (historical)
|Produced||1984–1992, 2002, 2008, 2017, 2021–|
|Number built||36 (9 test and 27 serial)|
Entering service in 1987, the Tu-160 was the last strategic bomber designed for the Soviet Union. As of 2016, the Russian Air Force's Long Range Aviation branch had 16 aircraft in service. The Tu-160 active fleet has been undergoing upgrades to electronics systems since the early 2000s. The Tu-160M modernization program of existing models has begun with the first updated aircraft delivered in December 2014. In January 2022 the first serial built aircraft had its test flight, with two planned for delivery in 2022 from 10 on order. Plans include 50 new Tu-160M bombers and upgrading 16 existing aircraft
The first competition for a supersonic strategic heavy bomber was launched in the Soviet Union in 1967. In 1972, the Soviet Union launched a new multi-mission bomber competition to create a new supersonic, variable-geometry ("swing-wing") heavy bomber with a maximum speed of Mach 2.3, in response to the US Air Force B-1 bomber project. The Tupolev design, named Aircraft 160M, with a lengthened blended wing layout and incorporating some elements of the Tu-144, competed against the Myasishchev M-18 and the Sukhoi T-4 designs. Work on the new Soviet bomber continued despite an end to the B-1A and in the same year, the design was accepted by the government committee. The prototype was photographed by an airline passenger at a Zhukovsky Airfield in November 1981, about a month before the aircraft's first flight on 18 December 1981. Production was authorized in 1984, beginning at the Kazan Aircraft Production Association (KAPO).
The first overhauled and partially modernized aircraft was accepted into Russian service after testing in July 2006. The aircraft reportedly received the capability to use conventional weapons but was not upgraded with new avionics as previously planned. The first modernized aircraft capable of carrying the new long-range Kh-555 conventional cruise missile was delivered to the Russian Air Force in April 2008; a follow-up contract for the modernization of three more aircraft is estimated to cost RUR3.4 billion (US$103 million).
The modernization appeared to be split into two phases, first concentrating on life extension with some initial communication–navigation updates, followed by engine upgrades after 2016. In November 2014, a Tu-160 upgraded with new radar and avionics performed its first flight. The aircraft was delivered to the Russian Air Force as the Tu-160M model in December 2014. The phase I update was due to be completed by 2016, but industrial limitations may delay it to 2019 or beyond. Although Kuznetsov designed an NK-32M engine with improved reliability over the NK-32 engines, its successor company has struggled to deliver working units. Metallist-Samara JSC had not produced new engines for a decade when it was given a contract in 2011 to overhaul 26 of the existing engines, by two years later, only four were finished. Ownership and financial concerns hinder the prospects of a new production line; the firm insists it needs a minimum of 20 engines ordered per year but the government is only prepared to pay for 4–6 engines per year. A further improved engine has been bench tested and may enter production in 2016 or later. Deliveries started in 2020 and 5 aircraft have been equipped with the new engines as of August 2022.
On 29 April 2015, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, on order of President Putin, announced Russia was resuming production of the Tu-160. In May 2015, TASS reported that the Russian Air Force would purchase at least 50 newly built Tu-160s and that the production of the aircraft would resume at KAPO. General Viktor Bondarev has said that development of the PAK DA will continue alongside resumption of production of the older model bomber.
On 16 November 2017, a newly assembled Tu-160, built from an unfinished Tu-160 airframe, was unveiled during a roll-out ceremony at KAPO, signifying a restoration of certain production technologies such as electron-beam welding or titanium work reportedly lost after the termination of serial production in 1992. According to Dmitri Rogozin, the serial production of completely new airframes for the modernized Tu-160M2 should begin in 2019 with deliveries to the Russian Air Force in 2023. The aircraft, named Petr Deinekin, after the first commanding officer of the Russian Air Force Gen. Pyotr Deynekin, performed its maiden flight in January 2018 and began flight testing the same month. It performed its first public flight on 25 January 2018, during President Vladimir Putin's visit to KAPO plant. The same day, a contract for ten upgraded Tu-160M2 bombers was signed. On 12 January 2022 a new serial produced from scratch Tu-160M had its first low altitude basic test flight. It is planned to deliver 2 newly built serial Tu-160M in 2022 with ramping up production until all 50 on order new aircraft are delivered.
A demilitarized, commercial version of the Tu-160, named Tu-160SK, was displayed at Asian Aerospace in Singapore in 1994 with a model of a small space vehicle named Burlak attached underneath the fuselage.
In January 2018, Vladimir Putin, while visiting the KAPO plant, floated an idea of creating a civilian passenger supersonic transport version of Tu-160. Experts quoted by the news media were skeptical about the commercial and technological feasibility of such civilian conversion.
The Tu-160 is a variable-geometry wing aircraft. The aircraft employs a fly-by-wire control system with a blended wing profile, and full-span slats are used on the leading edges, with double-slotted flaps on the trailing edges and cruciform tail. Titanium constitutes around 30% of the aircraft's 110-tonne (240,000 lb) empty weight, and the largest component (the swing wing hinge) weighs six tonnes (13,000 lb). The Tu-160 has a crew of four (pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, and defensive systems operator) in K-36LM ejection seats.
The Tu-160 is powered by four Kuznetsov NK-32 afterburning turbofan engines, the most powerful ever fitted to a combat aircraft. Unlike the American B-1B Lancer, which reduced the original Mach 2+ requirement for the B-1A to achieve a smaller radar cross-section, the Tu-160 retains variable intake ramps, and is capable of reaching Mach 2.05 speed at altitude. The Tu-160 is equipped with a probe-and-drogue in-flight refueling system for extended-range missions, although it is rarely used. The Tu-160 has an internal fuel capacity of 130 tonnes (290,000 lb). In February 2008, Tu-160 bombers and Il-78 refueling tankers practiced air refueling during air combat exercise, as well as MiG-31, A-50 and other Russian combat aircraft.
The aircraft carries a TsNPO Leninets Obzor-K (Survey, NATO: Clam Pipe) radar for tracking ground and air targets, and a separate Sopka Terrain-following radar. Although the Tu-160 was designed for reduced detectability to both radar and infrared signature, it is not a stealth aircraft. Nevertheless, Lt. Gen. Igor Khvorov claimed that Tu-160s managed to penetrate the US sector of the Arctic undetected on 25 April 2006, leading to a USAF investigation according to a Russian source.
Weapons are carried in two internal bays, each capable of holding 20,000 kg (44,000 lb) of free-fall weapons or a rotary launcher for nuclear missiles; additional missiles may also be carried externally. The aircraft's total weapons load capacity is 40,000 kg (88,000 lb). No defensive weapons are provided; the Tu-160 is the first post-World War II Soviet bomber to lack such defenses.
While similar in appearance to the American B-1 Lancer, the Tu-160 is a different class of combat aircraft; its primary role being a standoff missile platform (strategic missile carrier). The Tu-160 is also larger and faster than the B-1B and has a slightly greater combat range, though the B-1B has a larger combined payload with external payload. Another noticeable difference is that the B-1's colour scheme is usually subdued dark gray to reduce visibility; the Tu-160 is painted with anti-flash white, giving it the nickname among Russian airmen "White Swan".
In April 1987, the Tu-160 entered operational service with the 184th Guards Heavy Bomber Regiment located at Pryluky Air Base, Ukrainian SSR. The regiment previously operating Tu-16 and Tu-22M3 strategic bombers became the first unit that received the Tu-160. Squadron deployments to Long Range Aviation began the same month, prior to the Tu-160's first public appearance in a parade in 1989. In 1989 and 1990, a total of 44 world speed flight records in its weight class were set. In January 1992, Boris Yeltsin decided to stop the Tu-160's serial production with 35 aircraft being built at the time. Russia has also unilaterally suspended flights of strategic aviation in remote regions of the world.
A total of 19 Tu-160s were stationed inside the newly independent Ukraine during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. On 25 August 1991, the Ukrainian parliament decreed that the new nation would take control of all military units on its territory; a Defence Ministry was created that same day. By the mid-1990s, the Pryluky regiment had lost its value as a combat unit; 19 Tu-160s were effectively grounded due to a lack of technical support and spare parts. Ukraine considered the Tu-160s to be a bargaining chip in economic negotiations with Russia and of limited value from a military standpoint. Discussions over the Tu-160s were lengthy due to price disagreements. While Russian experts, who examined the aircraft at the Pryluky Air Base in 1993 and 1996, assessed their technical condition as good, the US$3 billion price proposed by Ukraine was considered by Russians as unacceptable. In April 1998, due to the stalled negotiations, Ukraine decided to commence scrapping the aircraft under the Nunn–Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction agreement. In November, the first Tu-160 was deconstructed at Pryluky.
In April 1999, immediately after NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia, Russia resumed talks with Ukraine about strategic bombers, proposing to purchase eight Tu-160 and three Tu-95MS bombers manufactured in 1991 (those in the best technical condition), as well as 575 Kh-55SM cruise missiles. An agreement was reached and a US$285 million contract was signed, the value of which was deducted from Ukraine's debt for natural gas. On 20 October 1999, a group of Russian military experts went to Ukraine to prepare the aircraft for the flight to Engels-2 air base. The first two aircraft (a Tu-160 and a Tu-95MS) departed Pryluky on 5 November. During the following months, seven other Tu-160s flew to Engels-2, with the last two Tu-95MSs arriving on 21 February 2001.
Along with the purchase of Ukrainian aircraft, Russia sought other ways of rebuilding the fleet at Engels-2. In June 1999, the Russian Defence Ministry and Kazan Aircraft Production Association signed a contract for a delivery of a single, almost complete bomber. The aircraft was the second aircraft in the eighth production batch and it arrived at Engels-2 on 10 September. It was commissioned into service on 5 May 2000 and named Aleksandr Molodchiy. The unit operating the fleet from Engels-2 was the 121st Guards Heavy Bomber Regiment which was formed up in early 1992 and received six aircraft by 1994. By the end of February 2001, the fleet stood at 15 with the addition of the eight aircraft from Ukraine and the new-build. In 2002, Russian Defence Ministry and KAPO reached an agreement on modernization of the 15 aircraft.
On 22 April 2006, the then commander of the Long-Range Aviation Lieutenant General Igor Khvorov reported a pair of Tu-160 bombers flew undetected through a US-controlled sector during a military exercise in the Arctic.
On 5 July 2006, a Tu-160 named Valentin Bliznyuk entered service with the Russian Air Force after completion of its overhaul, bringing the total number back to 15. Built in 1986, it previously served as a test aircraft at Tupolev Design Bureau. It was named after Valentin Bliznyuk, the chief designer of the Tu-160.
On 17 August 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was resuming the strategic aviation flights stopped in 1991, sending its bombers on long-range patrols. On 14 September 2007, British and Norwegian fighters intercepted two Tu-160s in international airspace near the United Kingdom and Finland, as they were patrolling the North Atlantic. On 25 December 2007, two Tu-160s came close to Danish airspace and two Danish Air Force F-16s scrambled to intercept and identify them.
On 11 September 2007, according to Russian government sources, a Tu-160 deployed a massive fuel-air explosive device, called Father of All Bombs, for its first field test. Some US military analysts expressed skepticism at the time that the weapon was actually delivered by a Tu-160.
On 28 December 2007, a new Tu-160 named Vitaly Kopylov performed its first flight. The bomber joined the Russian Air Force on 29 April 2008, increasing the total number of aircraft in service to 16.
In early 2008, Tu-160s bombers took part in an exercise with the Russian Navy in the Atlantic Ocean. Russia also planned that one new Tu-160 would be delivered every one to two years until the active inventory would reach 30 or more aircraft by 2025–2030.
On 10 September 2008, two Tu-160s landed in Venezuela as part of military manoeuvres, announcing an unprecedented deployment to Russia's ally at a time of increasingly tense relations between Russia and the United States. The Russian Defence Ministry said Vasily Senko and Aleksandr Molodchiy were on a training mission. In a statement carried by Russian news agencies, it was reported that the aircraft would conduct training flights over neutral waters before returning to Russia. The aircraft were escorted by NATO fighters as they flew across the Atlantic Ocean.
On 12 October 2008, Tu-160s were involved in the largest Russian strategic bomber exercise since 1984. A total of 12 bombers including Tu-160 and Tu-95 aircraft conducted a series of launches of their cruise missiles. Some bombers launched a full complement of missiles. It was the first time that a Tu-160 had ever fired a full complement of missiles.
On 10 June 2010, two Tu-160s carried out a record-breaking 23-hour patrol with a planned flight range of 18,000 km (9,700 nmi). The bombers flew along the Russian borders and over neutral waters in the Arctic and Pacific Oceans.
In August 2011, Russian media reported that only four of Russia's Air Force sixteen Tu-160s were flight worthy. By mid-2012 Flight International reported eleven were combat-ready and between 2011 and 2013 eleven were photographed in flight.
On 1 November 2013, Aleksandr Golovanov and Aleksandr Novikov entered Colombian airspace on two different occasions without receiving previous clearance from the Colombian government. The aircraft were going from Venezuela to Nicaragua and headed for Managua. The Colombian government issued a letter of protest to the Russian government following the first violation. Two Colombian Air Force IAI Kfirs stationed at Barranquilla intercepted and escorted the two Tu-160s out of Colombian airspace after the second violation.
On 17 November 2015, as part of the Russian military intervention in the Syrian Civil War, several Tu-160 and Tu-95MS long-range strategic bombers of the Russian Air Force carried out airstrikes at in Idlib and Aleppo provinces using the Kh-101 air-launched cruise missiles fired from the Mediterranean. In total, between 34 and 83 cruise missiles were fired, destroying 14 important targets. In addition, Tu-22M3 strategic bombers hit numerous claimed IS targets with unguided ammunition. This also marked the combat debut for the Tu-160 and Tu-95MS.
In August 2018, a number of Russian military aircraft including two Tu-160, Tu-95MS strategic bombers and Il-78 aerial tankers were deployed for the first time to the Russian Far East as part of a long-range tactical flight exercise. The aircraft completed a 7,000 km non-stop flight from their home base in Saratov Oblast and landed at the Anadyr Airport, Chukotka. During the exercise, the crews practised combat use of cruise missiles at the Komi Test Range and performed flights with aerial refueling.
On 14 August 2019, two Tu-160s were again redeployed at the Anadyr Airport, Chukotka in the Russian Far East.
On 23 October 2019, two Tu-160s accompanied by an An-124 cargo plane and an Il-62 passenger plane made a friendly visit to South Africa as part of strengthening ties between the two nations. The aircraft performed a 13 hours non-stop flight over the Caspian Sea, Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean, covering 11,000 km (6,800 mi) distance with mid-air refueling and landed at Waterkloof Air Force Base in South Africa. It was the Tu-160's first visit to the African continent.
On 2 February 2020, the modernized Tu-160M performed its first test flight at the airfield of the Kazan Aviation Plant named for I. Gorbunov. The flight took place at an altitude of 1,500 metres and lasted 34 minutes.
On 19 September 2020, two Tu-160s set a world record for the range and duration of a non-stop flight for aircraft of this class. The pilots were in the air for more than 25 hours, covering over 20 thousand kilometers. The flight took place in airspace over the neutral waters of the central part of the Arctic and Pacific oceans and the Kara, Laptev, East Siberian, Chukchi, and Barent seas.
The aircraft was involved in the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. According to Ukrainian sources, on 6 March 2022, a Tu-160 along with a Tu-95MS strategic bomber launched eight cruise missiles, presumably the Kh-101, at the Havryshivka Vinnytsia International Airport from the Black Sea area.
On 26 June 2022, spokesman of the Ukrainian Air Force Yurii Ihnat reported four to six Kh-101 cruise missiles were launched by Tu-160 and Tu-95MS strategic bombers at Kyiv from the Caspian Sea area. The aircraft reportedly flew from Astrakhan.
Data from Jane's All the World's Aircraft 2003–2004
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration, and era
The bombers' deployment follows Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's visit to Moscow last week in a bid to shore up political and economic assistance even as his country has been struggling to pay billions of dollars owed to Russia.