New Missiles for the ‘Bear’ and ‘Blackjack’

 - May 13, 2019, 10:57 AM
A Tu-95MSM flies closely behind an Il-78M tanker during a rehearsal for the canceled 2019 Victory Day flypast. The upgraded "Bear-H" displays its newly acquired outboard underwing pylons. (Photo: Vladimir Karnozov)

Low clouds and mist in the morning of May 9 caused the cancellation of an aviation flypast with 78 aircraft over Moscow, preventing freshly upgraded bombers from showing their teeth as newly developed missiles begin to enter service.

This year’s Victory Day parade was to demonstrate Long-Range Aviation’s strategic bombers that have recently undergone a modernization program—a single Tu-160M “Blackjack” and four Tu-95MSM “Bear-Hs. "Strictly speaking, their public flying debut (the Tu-95MSM was displayed statically at MAKS’2017) was spoiled rather than canceled, because Muscovites had watched them pass overhead on May 4 and 7 when Russia’s Air and Space Force (VKS) crews practiced for the flypast. A single Tu-160M led four smaller Tu-22M3s, while a trio of Tu-95MSMs flew in a Vic formation, with another following an Il-78M tanker to demonstrate inflight refueling.

Each of the “Bears” was fitted with four large underwing pylons with rails for Kh-101/102 land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs). Previously modified Tu-95MSMs fired Kh-101s at Islamic State targets in Syria on two occasions, in November 2016 and July 2017. On the eve of the V-Day parade, the Russian defense ministry said that last year four more Tu-95MS aircraft underwent modernization into the MSM variant with improved mission equipment and the outer pylons.

Although adding these large pylons increases aerodynamic drag, it enables the aging type to carry eight new missiles that cannot fit into the aircraft’s internal bomb bays. In the future, a further improved Tu-95MSM may also carry an even larger LACM that is now in development at the Novator design house, a member of the Tactical Missile Corporation (Russian acronym TRV). Although this weapon is intended primarily for use in the Caliber-M strike system on warships, it may also be carried by the “Bear” thanks to its new outer pylons.

In 2018 sources in the Russian navy confirmed that R&D work on the Caliber-M with a maximum range of 2,430 nm (4,500 km) had commenced. This is about twice the figure for the in-service 3M14T of the original Caliber and is achieved primarily through enlargement of the missile body's diameter. The newer weapon will carry a larger warhead, at one tonne, compared to the current 250- to 500-kg (550- to 1,100-pound) warhead. In February, Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu said that Moscow will develop new members in the Caliber family following the Trump Administration’s decision to leave the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that was signed in 1987.

Because of its large dimensions, the new missile is unlikely to be fitted to the Tu-160. To fly supersonically, the “Blackjack” requires its air-launched missiles to be carried in the internal bays. For the Tu-160, however, another TRV member—the Raduga design house—is developing the Kh-50, a shorter-range version of the Kh-101 broadly similar to the AGM-158 JASSM with a larger (1,600 kg) warhead. A Tu-160 can carry up to 12 such missiles internally on two rotary launchers.

TRV is also working on GZUR, the Russian acronym for “hypersonic guided missile,” whose parameters are yet to be made public. It is likely to be a scaled version of the Kh-90, of which development commenced back in the 1970s. Weighing 15 tonnes, this air-launched weapon can accelerate to Mach 4 to 6, using a powder booster and a scramjet running on aviation kerosene. A prototype was shown at MAKS’1995 as the “Hypersonic Experimental Flight Vehicle,” local acronym GELA. Reportedly, prototypes successfully passed fire trials from a modified Tu-160 but did not enter serial production.