Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) has issued a statement about the maiden flight of what it calls “the first experimental example of a deeply modernized Tu-160M created on the platform of the in-service Tu-160” strategic bomber (NATO codename “Blackjack”). The flight occurred on February 2 from the airport of the Kazan Aviation Plant named after Gorbunov (local acronym KAZ, formerly Kazan Aviation Industrial Organization or KAPO) and lasted for 34 minutes. KAZ is a part of Tupolev, itself a UAC member. Headed by Anri Naskidyants, the crew from Tupolev’s flight test-base in Zhukovsky reported that the aircraft attained a maximum altitude of 1,500 meters (4,920 feet) and behaved well.
“During this flight, the crew performed all necessary checks to do with the renovated systems and equipment that had been installed as part of the deep modernization effort. According to crew reports, the flight was uneventful, all systems and onboard equipment functioned normally,” read the UAC statement. It went on to say that the bomber has received a number of new systems, including flight controls and navigation equipment, communications and electronic countermeasure systems, and radar, which have resulted in a significant increase in its combat efficiency.
The two low-resolution images available on the corporate website depict an aircraft on takeoff and landing whose airframe is mostly painted with green-yellow primer while having a number of white parts likely taken from unserviceable Tu-160s. However, neither the statement nor the pictures, provide sufficient information to tell whether the aircraft comes with a rebuilt or newly-manufactured airframe.
Secrecy shrouds the ongoing large-scale Tu-160 modernization and production restoration effort, which began in 2015, when defense minister Sergei Shoigu instructed UAC to resume the type’s manufacturing, while promising an order for 50 new aircraft, sometimes referred to as the Tu-160M2. Later, President Putin mentioned an already-placed contract for 10 bombers for delivery in 2021-2026 with more to come. Two years ago he visited the plant in Kazan to witness the maiden flight of the aircraft 8-04 “Piotr Deinekin,” which was an example of the “Tu-160M1+” subtype, which was accepted by the Russian Air and Space Force (local acronym VKS) in December 2018. It became the 17th Tu-160 in the VKS inventory and seventh Tu-160M with extended functionality and weapons arsenal.
The maiden flight of the Tu-160 prototype occurred in December 1981. At a gross weight of 275 tonnes (606,260 pounds), the type still represents the world’s largest-ever combat jet. Four 25-tonne-thrust NK-32 afterburner-equipped turbofans can accelerate it to Mach 2.0 and give a range of over 12,000 km (6,500 nm), extendable through aerial refueling.
The type remained in production in Kazan until the mid-1990s. Using pre-manufactured parts, the plant completed the aircraft named “Alexander Molodchiy” in 2000 and “Vitaly Kopylov” in 2008. At that time, then-UAC president Alexei Fedorov claimed: “From now on, KAPO will perform only repair and modernization on Tu-160s and Tu-22M3s built earlier.” At that point, Tu-160 production stood at 36 units, of which a number had been lost in crashes, cannibalized for parts, or cut up under disarmament treaties with the U.S.
In times of rising geopolitical tensions, the remaining Tu-160s have been involved in the air campaign against the Islamic State, firing Raduga Kh-555 and Kh-101 long-range cruise missiles at targets in Syria, and they are back in the forefront of the Russia-U.S. confrontation. On January 31, NORAD “positively identified two Tu-160 'Blackjack' Russian bombers entering the Canadian Air Defense Identification Zone” as they flew from a base in Russia across the Arctic Ocean on a combat training mission that lasted for 16 hours. In reply to this, NORAD Commander General O’Shaughnessy commented on Twitter, “Our adversaries continue to flex their long-range weapons systems and engage in increasingly aggressive efforts, to include the approaches to the United States and Canada.”