Blackjack vs ‘Bone’


In some circumstances the Blackjack’s overall white colour scheme can be an effective camouflage in its own right, as illustrated by the as-yet unnamed ’06 Red’ cruising with the wings at 35°. This view also illustrates the Tu-160’s sleek profile accounted for by the high fineness ratio of the fuselage.


The B-1 (illustrated here by B-1A 74-0160 following modifications under the B-1 B development programme and repainted in a desert camouflage scheme) has a distinctive humpbacked appearance. The spine housing ECM equipment was omitted on the B-1 B as the system was stowed inside the fuselage.

Equals or Not?

Some might be tempted to put the question differently: copy or not? Sure enough, the Tu-160 and the Rockwell International B-1 look quite similar at first glance. Much has been said about the apparent Soviet custom of copying Western designs; this postulate is rooted in a firm conviction that Russia, the old Cold War enemy, cannot produce anything worthwhile. However, it is no surprise that the engineers developing both aircraft chose the same general arrangement, aerodynamic features and internal layout more than 20 years ago. Ideas are borne on the wind, as a Russian saying goes; and indeed, faced with similar general requirements and given basi- cally the same levels of aviation science and technology, the two nations were bound to come up with similar results. Yet, a closer look at the two bombers reveals that the Tu-160 and the B-1 are not so similar after all.

Born under President Richard Nixon, the B-1 had a head start on the Blackjack; the first prototype of the original B-1 A (USAF serial 74-0158) first flew on 23rd December 1974, followed by three other prototypes, one of which was originally a structural test airframe. However, mounting programme costs worried the new President, Jimmy Carter (known for his ‘belt-tightening’ policies) so much that he finally cancelled the B-1 on 30th June 1977, the last day of Fiscal Year 1977. Yet the subsequent revelation that the Soviet Union was working on a new strategic bomber pro- gramme prompted the US Department of Defense to revive the programme, adapting it to changed priorities; the result was the B-1 B Lancer – or, as it is popularly known, the Bone (a corruption of ‘B-One’).

During the transformation from A to B Rockwell spent a lot of effort on reducing the bomber’s radar cross-section; a new, more fuel-efficient version of the General Electric F101 afterburning turbofan was fitted, and the avionics and armament were revised. As a result, the maximum take-off weight rose from the B-1 A’s 180 tons (395,000 Ib) to 217 tons (477,000 lb). However, the B-1 lobby and the US Air Force did not succeed in proving to the US Congress the need to incorporate a whole range of costly features into the B-1 B’s design and the Congress slashed the funds for the new bomber. Consequently the engineers had to use rather less titanium than they wanted to and use simple fixed-area air intakes instead of variable supersonic intakes; the latter restricted the bomber’s top speed to Mach 1.25. The armament was to consist of Boeing AGM-86B (ALCM) cruise missiles, Lockheed AGM-69A (SRAM) short-range attack missiles and nuclear bombs.

The B-1 B prototype (82-0001 Leader of the Fleet, cln 1) entered flight test on 23rd March 1983; it remained a test aircraft and was never delivered to the USAF. The first production aircraft (83-0065 Star of Abilene, cln 2) took off on 18th October 1984. The 100th and final B-1 B (86-0140 Valda J, cln 100) left the production line in Palmdale, California, in 1988.

Conversely, the Tu-160 was developed by the world’s second superpower at a time when funding issues were of minor impor- tance, if any – in those days the Soviet military got all the money they wanted, as long as the required weapons systems were developed and fielded on time. Hence the Tu-160 escaped the ‘vivisection’ the B-1 had been subjected to, and the aircraft which entered production and service with the Soviet Air Force was exactly what its creators had wanted it to be – a multi-mode aircraft capable of delivering intercontinental strikes within a wide altitude and speed envelope.

On the other hand, the production line at Palmdale was turning out a steady stream of Lancers on (or ahead of) schedule and the B-1 B was already fully operational at a time when Tu-160 production in Kazan’ was only just commencing. Today the ‘Bone’, together with the long-serving Boeing B-52H Super-fortress and a small number of the highly sophisticated Northrop B-2A Spirit stealth bombers, makes up the backbone of the USAF’s strategic component.

After the demise of the Soviet Union the balance of power shifted; Russia had to work hard in order to at least partly rebuild it strategic bomber force. Despite these efforts, today Russia has only a single regiment of Tu-160s – sixteen aircraft, which is equivalent to just over 15% of the USAF’s B-1 fleet.

As for the capabilities of the two aircraft, they can be compared only in theory.

Sure, outwardly the Tu-160 is very similar to the B-1 B, having the same general arrangement, utilising the same blended winglbody layout and variable-geometry wing design. However, the Russian bomber is much larger and heavier, which is why the aggregate thrust of its engines is 79% higher. The operating speeds are quite different as well. As already noted, at the insistence of the USAF Rockwell had to do without variable supersonic air intakes. Hence at high altitude the B-1 B cannot exceed Mach 1.2, which is not ideal from a tactical standpoint. Conversely, the Tu-160 can reach 2,200 kmlh (1,366 mph; 1,189 kts), thanks to its variable intakes, ample engine thrust and slender fuselage having a relatively small cross-section area. Low drag was attained thanks not only to streamlined contours but also to a carefully designed internal layout thanks to which the Tu-160’s fuselage height is no bigger than that of the much smaller Tu-22M3.

Also, the Tu-160 is designed in such a way as to achieve maximum possible range both in high-altitude supersonic cruise and in ultra-low-level flight. These modes can be used separately or in a combination to fufil the mission with maximum efficiency. This is the Russian bomber’s multi-mode design philosophy.

The Blackjack has an advantage in offensive capability as well – its main weapon, the Kh-55SM cruise missile, is well mastered by both the industry and the bomber crews. Conversely, the Americans were unable to adapt the B-1 B to the costly AGM-86B due to budgetary constraints – this would require not only the bomb bays to be modified but also the avionics suite to be substantially altered. The AGM-69A had to be excluded from the inventory in 1994 because the stockpile of missiles had reached the end of their shelf life and the solid propellant had started decomposing. This left the B-1 B with only the B61 and B83 free-fall nuclear bombs (though a small number of B28 nukes remained avail- able in 1996). (Note: As of 1996 the USAF had plans to integrate the General Dynamics AGM-129A (ACM) advanced cruise missile on the B-1 B. The Boeing AGM-131A (SRAM II) was also proposed but was cancelled in September 1991.)

As for conventional munitions, the Lancer did not receive a conventional capability until after the Gulf War (true, live weapons tests began in 1991 but the fleet-wide upgrade came too late for the action); it was first used operationally during the war in ex-Yugoslavia (Operation Allied Force). Conversely, the Tu-160 had a conventional capability from the start, hence the inclusion of the OPB-15T electro-optical bombsight into the targeting suite.

The approach to weapons carriage is different, too. The B-1 B has three weapons bays (two ahead of the wing pivot box carry-through and one aft), while the Tu-160 has two bays of larger dimensions. Also, the Lancer has provisions for carrying missiles on six external hardpoints under the forward, centre and rear fuselage, whereas on the Blackjack all armament is stowed internally. This helps reduce the bomber’s RCS and reduce drag, thereby increasing range – albeit this also accounts for the larger size of the Tu-160.

In avionics and equipment, the B-1 B apparently comes out on top. According to press reports, Russian and Ukrainian pilots described the Lancer’s flight instrumentation as ‘excellent’. As regards crew comfort and cockpit ergonomics, the two aircraft are about equal, although the B-1 B’s flight deck offers somewhat less headroom, being encroached on from below by the nosewheel well. As for the mission avionics, some Russian systems are theoretically more capable than their US counterparts but are not used in full or not used at all for various reasons (reliability problems etc.); also, some of the Blackjack’s avionics are still hampered by operational limits imposed in some flight modes.

The Russian military and many of the world’s top aviation experts believe that the combination of the Tu-160’s performance characteristics and design features theoretically gives it an edge over the B-1 B and other American bombers, including the stealthy B-2A – but theory is one thing and real life is another. Due to persistent funding shortfalls the Russian Air Force is currently unable to maintain its operational bomber fleet in perfect condition – and apparently will not be able to do so in the foreseeable future (to say nothing of providing enough flying hours for the crews). Maintaining proficiency is a sore problem for the Russian airmen. For instance, both the ‘Bone’ and the Blackjack have IFR capability; however, B-1 B pilots practice aerial refuelling almost weekly – something their Russian colleagues can only dream of.

An opportunity to make an objective comparison of the two types came on 23rd-25th September 1994 when the Tu-160 and the B-1 B ‘rubbed noses’ (fortunately not literally) for the first time at Poltava AB during the Shuttle Raid 50th anniversary celebrations, to which the USAF sent a large delegation. The flight and ground crews of both bombers had a chance to examine each other’s aircraft and form an opinion for themselves.

Here is the opinion of 37th VA Commander Lt. Gen. Mikhail Oparin:

‘I have a deep respect for the people who charted the development perspectives for the Long-Range Aviation in the 1980s/early 1990s time frame. The structural strength reserves and upgrade potential of the Tu-95MS and Tu-160 strategic bombers allows them to be called aircraft of the 21st century, and with good reason – the missile- carrying aircraft still have unused potential. These bombers are not only a match for the best Western hardware but excel it in certain respects. I know what I’m saying because I have had a chance to study the strategic aircraft of our ‘friends and rivals’ firsthand. I had the opportunity to fly a real B-52, and I made several flights in the B-1 simulator; after this I was enchanted by the Tu-95MS and especially the Tu-160.’

It would be best to conclude with the following words said by former Russian Air Force C-in-C Army General Pyotr S. Deynekin:

‘What makes the best comparison for the “II’ya Muromets” (ie, the Tu-160)? The Tu-95? Or perhaps the [Antonov] An-124 (the world’s heaviest operational transport aircraft)? I guess the correct answer is the B-1 B Lancer, the Tu-160’s American counterpart. In May 1992 I made three flights in a B-1 B over the Nevada Desert, flying the bomber from the left-hand seat, with multiple top-ups from a KC-135 tanker. I have a commemorative picture signed by the Commanders of USAF bomber wings. I daresay they are both good aircraft and worthy rivals – as, incidentally, are the men who fly them. This is why we’d better be friends than foes, and the Americans are well aware of this.’

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