The Russians will likely build about 50 of the new Tu-160M—production versions of which will feature new avionics and upgraded versions of the Kuznetsov NK-32 afterburning turbofan.
Russia flew the maiden flight of the upgraded Tupolev Tu-160M ‘Blackjack’ strategic bomber on 2 February, 2020, the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) announced.
The flight took place at the Kazan Aircraft Plant and lasted 34 minutes with the aircraft reaching an altitude of approximately 5,000 ft. The video of the flight was released by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) of the Russian Federation on 6 February.
As noted by the MoD, the first upgraded aircraft are due to be received by the Russian Air Force in 2021.
The Tu-160 first entered into Soviet service in the late 1980s. Since then the swing-wing supersonic bomber has undergone several upgrades, including in the early 2000s a bolstering of the aircraft’s nuclear armament with the capacity to carry 12 conventionally armed Raduga NPO Kh-555 (AS-15 ‘Kent’) long-range cruise missiles and laser-guided bombs.
The Tu-160M upgrade is being rolled out in two phases, with the first Tu-160M1 phase comprising the new K-042K-1 navigation system and ABSU-200-1 autopilot, as well as the removal of some previous systems, such as bomb sighting systems. This Tu-160M1-variant has been operational with the air force since late 2014.
The second Tu-160M2 phase includes the new Novella NV1.70 radar, a digital ‘glass’ cockpit, modern communications and anti-jamming equipment, upgraded NK-32 engines (designated NK-32-02), and modern conventional and nuclear weapons.
The Russian expect the addition of the upgraded Tu-160M2 into the arsenal will improve the capability of their nuclear triad. “It is a serious step to advance the development of the high-tech industry and strengthen the country’s defense capabilities, because it is one of the elements of our nuclear triad,” Putin said.
Moscow can make do with the upgraded Tu-160M2 for its strategic bomber force because unlike the United States Air Force, the Russian Air Force does not expect the massive aircraft to penetrate into enemy airspace to deliver its payload. Instead, the Tu-160—which is capable of speeds of over Mach 2.0—would dash into position to launch long-range standoff cruise missiles. As such, stealth is not considered to be particularly important. Indeed, one of the advantages of a highly visible strategic bomber is that it enables nuclear signaling.