The Tupolev Tu-160M2 made its first flight on January 25, and the Russian defense ministry confirmed an order for 10 of the swing-wing supersonic bombers worth 160 billion roubles ($2.8 billion). At the same time, the ministry said that the Tu-160’s main weapon, the Kh-101 cruise missile, has been improved based on combat experience over Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin witnessed the flight as he was visiting the Kazan Aircraft Production Association (KAPO). He described it as “a serious step forward in development of the high-tech sphere and in strengthening the defense capability of this country.” Surprisingly, he suggested that a civilian version of the airplane should be produced. In response, Yuri Slyusar, president of United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), announced that a supersonic civilian jet concept is already being studied.
The Tu-160M2 development prototype was completed and rolled out last November. It spent seven minutes in the air on its first flight, making some gentle maneuvers to assess handling qualities at a height of 300 meters (about 1,000 feet).
The Tu-160M2 and the newly suggested civil version will be powered by Kuznetsov NK-32-02 engines each developing a thrust of up to 25 tons (55,000 pounds). This is enough to take the world’s biggest combat jet to an altitude of 18,000 meters (59,000 feet) and to accelerate to Mach 2.0. The reduced fuel burn will confer an increase in range to over 12,000 km (6,500 nm), the range rising further by means of aerial refueling.
In 2015, the Russian defense ministry voiced its desire to procure as many as 50 improved Tu-160s and instructed KAPO to commence work on restoration of the type’s production line. So far, the investment into this has come to 37 billion roubles ($670 million). The initial contract for 10 aircraft will extend production through 2027.
Between October 2015 and November 2017, Russian forces performed 166 launches of land-attack missiles at targets of ISIS and other terrorist organizations, including approximately 100 from naval platforms and the rest from the Tu-160 and Tu-95MS strategic bombers. Over Syria, the most widely used version of the Kh-101 was that with a 400 kg (880-pound) high-explosive warhead. It also comes with penetrating and cassette-type warheads.
According to Boris Obnosov, general director at the Tactical Missile Corporation (TMC), the recent improvements to the Kh-101 are to do with climate conditions and better planning of flight trajectories. Although the weapon performed well enough and scored many direct hits at assigned targets, there were, reportedly, several cases in which the missiles refused to leave the aircraft.
According to the Russian media, the improved air-launched weapon has a maximum range of approximately 5,500 km (nearly 3,000 nm), depending on cruise altitude, which ranges from 30 to 10,000 meters (100 to nearly 33,000 feet). It has a circular error probable within five meters (16.5 feet).
“Why did the Tu-144 come out of production?” Putin asked rhetorically during his visit to Kazan. He continued: “Because [there was a precondition in the Soviet Union] that ticket prices should correspond to the average [monthly] salary in the country. Today, the situation is different. There are big companies in the market that could make use of such an airplane.” According to Russian industry sources, there have been several requests for a supersonic jet from Arab sheikhs and other rich people “from Australia and Greece.”
Deputy head of the Russian government, responsible for the military industrial complex, Dmitry Rogozin, was also present at the event. According to him, UAC has enough engineering capacity to develop a supersonic passenger jet. “Design commonality should increase the production run, help reduce costs and bring other positive effects,” Rogozin said. In particular, a would-be civilian version “can make use of technologies and design solutions tried on the Tu-160M2. In this regard, it is important to note that the plant in Kazan has mastered production of highly loaded center wing elements.”