Tupolev has rolled out a prototype of the Tu-22M3M swing-wing strategic bomber. The ceremony took place on August 16 at the Kazan Aircraft Production Organization (KAPO), in the presence of employees and government officials, including the president of the Russian Federation’s Tatarstan Republic, Rustam Minnikhanov.
Since 1977, this plant in the Tatarstan capital city has assembled about 500 Tu-22M bombers and reconnaissance aircraft (NATO codename: ‘Backfire’) in five major versions, including nearly 270 of the Tu-22M3. Although production came to an end shortly after the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Russian Air and Space Force (VKS) maintains around 100 "Backfires," including more than 60 in airworthy condition. KAPO also has stocks of pre-manufactured airframe parts and used some to complete the Tu-22M3M prototype (side number 42, registration RF-94267).
Following rollout from KAPO's final assembly shop, the prototype was handed over to the plant's flight-test department for ground tests, with flight trials expected to commence in September. The manufacturer’s tests are to be completed in December, after which the aircraft will commence state acceptance trials in the hands of industry and defense ministry specialists.
According to a statement issued by Tupolev and its parent United Aircraft Corporation, this aircraft represents the first example of the refurbished Tu-22M3M. According to the statement, the modernization of the Tu-22M3 into the M3M version results in "a substantial enhancement of the aircraft's combat potential." Soviet-era avionics and mission equipment have been replaced by "a state-of-the-art radio-electronic complex using locally made chips." The system comprises modern navigation, information management, secure datalink and targeting systems, as well as FADEC engine controls and a new electronic warfare suite. New components account for 80 percent of the Tu-22M3M’s avionics. This results in more accurate navigation, a higher degree of automation, improved ergonomics, and better handling qualities, as well as lower maintenance requirements and reduced pre-flight preparation requirements.
The Tu-22M3M's "radio-electronic complex" is similar to that developed for the Tu-160M2 that was rolled out last year. The manufacturer also mentions an "all-new information management system that includes a glass cockpit and the functions of smart assistance to crew actions." It further states that the Tu-22M3M features higher lethality and longer range, and, overall, provides a considerable boost to the bomber's combat potential.
Speaking at the rollout ceremony, the commander of the VKS's Long Range Aviation, General Sergei Kobylash, described the Tu-22M3M as "a bomber with an artificial intellect. This aircraft is indeed of interest to us. Many things in it are now digitized for notable improvement in navigation and strike capability using bombs and missiles. The range has been increased. The deep modernization gives the Tu-22M3M much additional capability compared to in-service aircraft."
The MoD has declared plans to upgrade 30 Tu-22M3s to the new standard. Earlier, the VKS upgraded a number of its Tu-22M3s with the SPV-24-22 targeting sub-system and Glonass satellite-aided navigation for improved accuracy with free-fall bombs. Such aircraft were used with great effect against Daesh forces in Syria, especially during the operation to liberate the besieged city of Deir-Ez-Zoir.
Tupolev CEO Alexander Konyukhov said that the Tu-22M3M prototype is part of a larger effort concerning the modernization of VKS strategic aviation aircraft. Led by Tupolev, this effort is aimed at keeping the strategic aviation assets intact and up-to-date to provide an effective deterrent. The next step is the modernization of an initial batch of in-service Tu-22M3s at KAPO, for which a go-ahead is expected from the defense ministry upon a positive conclusion of state acceptance trials with aircraft 42, expected in 2019. Konyukhov said that the contract has already been negotiated. Starting next year, VKS will begin ferrying its in-service Tu-22M3s to KAPO for assessment and repairs. If the Tu-22M3M project proceeds to plan, the first aircraft will be ready for service in 2021.
Konyukhov clarified that the Tu-22M3M is primarily intended to combat naval strike groups. The aircraft will be able to employ new weapon systems, including modern anti-ship missiles. The ongoing modernization will give a boost to the aircraft's guided munitions capability. One of the weapons that is expected to arm the Tu-22M3M is the Kinzhal hypersonic missile unveiled in May this year on the MiG-31BM, as well as the Kh-32 "aero-ballistic" weapon.
A close look at aircraft 42 reveals that it differs from serial Tu-22M3s in having the rear 23 mm rapid-fire cannon removed to make room for what is believed to be an electronic warfare equipment pod. The aircraft also has a bolted-on fairing on the top of the nose section. Despite earlier reports that the Tu-22M3M may be powered by the NK-32-02 turbofan, the prototype appears to retain the original NK-25. The NK-32-02 engine is intended for the Tu-160M2, offering considerable fuel saving at similar thrust levels. The VKS is expected to make a decision on whether the NK-32-02 is installed by retrofit if it proves its advertised performance.