Since its inception, the Tupolev-produced Tu-160 (NATO codename of "Blackjack", nicknamed in Russia/Soviet Union as the "White Swan") has been the largest jet-powered, swing-wing combat aircraft platform ever produced, mounting the most powerful jet engines fitted to any military aircraft. Developed as a direct counter-product to the United States Air Force's Rockwell B-1 "Lancer" strategic bomber, the Tu-160 was designed to fulfill the slightly different role of stand-off missile launching. In contrast, the B-1 served primarily to deliver of large amounts of precision munitions in the form of cruise missiles and other potent air-to-surface types. The Tupolev system, though having mostly fallen to general neglect and under-use since the close of the Cold War, has received some recent attention as Russia strives to regain her former military glory. Though looking every bit a direct copy of the B-1 bomber, the Tu-160 is in fact many times larger than her American counterpart - though no less lethal - and sports better range and a larger munitions capability.
Origins of the Tu-160 date as far back as the United States North American XB-70 Valkyrie supersonic, long-range Mach 3.0-capable bomber project. The USAF project was a promising venture and two prototypes were eventually built and tested. One was tragically lost to an in-flight accident with a chase plane and the entire program was eventually cancelled. In 1967, half-a-world-away, the Soviet Union herself was beginning to move on a similar program. The agreed requirement came down for a supersonic bomber capable of Mach 3 speed. Similarly to the XB-70 program, the Soviet attempt was far-reaching and much less fruitful, the general realization being that such a system was beyond reach of becoming an effective solution.
As a result, product requirements were scaled back and, in 1972, a new Soviet attempt was launched for a like-minded system within a shorter scope. This airframe would make use of variable-geometry wings and reach supersonic speeds of up to Mach 2.3. The new product was to match wits with the equally-new Rockwell B-1A Lancer strategic bomber gaining steam in the United States. Tupolev, under the direction of V. I. Bliznuk, delivered their supersonic Tu-144-inspired "Aircraft 160M" large-scale bomber design into the fold and the Blackjack legacy was more-or-less born. Tupolev's design competed against a Sukhoi T-4 and Myasishchev M-18 offering and, while the Myasishchev product was generally accepted as the "winning" design, the Tupolev firm was elected in 1973 to head its development based on their successful history and overall potential in approaching the new Soviet bomber initiative.
Though development of the B-1A Lancer was stopped (for a time) in 1977, development of the Tu-160 continued until production resulted in about 30 such examples - with roughly 19 of these resided in the Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union. Eight of these were later transferred back to Russian hands in a debt-relief agreement at the beginning of 2000. It is suspect as to whether Ukraine maintains the military infrastructure to field their remaining Tu-160s. Some sources also stated that Ukraine lent or sold up to three non-military Tu-160 examples to the United States to be used as "satellite-launching platforms". Interesting in that the United States generally launches any satellite by way of Titan rockets.
In all, the Tu-160 family includes a variety of forms, some produced in quantity and others reserved for experimentation. The Tu-160S was used to designation serial production Tu-160s and define experimental versions from their pre-production counterparts. The Tu-160M is a modernized, lengthened version fielding two Kh-90 hypersonic (beyond Mach 5.0) long range missiles. The Tu-160P was a long-range version while the Tu-160PP was a dedicated Electronic Warfare Aircraft (EWA) platform fitted with Electronic CounterMeasures gear. The Tu-160R was a true strategic reconnaissance product. The Tu-160SK served in a "commercial" format, utilized as a satellite-launching platform. The Tu-170 was a designation used for conventional bomber Tu-160s in an effort to skirt the SALT-2 treaty limitations.
The official "Tu-160" product sported a design not unlike the Rockwell B-1. The cockpit was held well-forward in the streamlined fuselage and aft of a sharply-pointed nose cone assembly housing the internal radar array. The sides of the forward fuselage contoured elegantly into the leading edges of each wing assembly. Wings, as in the B-1, were of the "swing-wing" variety and able to provide the needed lift/drag that a given flight situation called for. Each features full span leading edge slats and double-slotted edge flaps on the trailing edge. The Tu-160 was fitted with four powerful Kuznetsov NK-321 afterburning turbofan engines, each capable of delivering over 55,115 lb of thrust. Engines were mounted to the underside of the wing roots in underslung contoured nacelles (as pairs). The large-area fuselage was very reminiscent of the Rockwell design right down to its shape and use of a single large rudder. The vertical tail fin sported a pair of horizontal planes. The fuselage extended a small length aft of the vertical tail fin's base. Air inlets were variable geometry and allowed for speeds in excess of Mach 2.0. First flight was on December 18th, 1981 and production formally began in 1984. A second prototype was lost in 1987 though the crew managed to escape alive. The Tu-160 entered service with the Russian Air Force in 1987 but was not formally and officially introduced for service until 2005. Of the 100 intended to be delivered, only 35 examples were eventually constructed.
Crew accommodations were four personnel. Each crewmember was seated in individual ejection seats as opposed to the crew-ejection "capsule" featured on the earlier B-1 "Lancers" (the first three A-models featured the system prior to a shift to conventional ejection seats for each crew member). Despite her 1989 technology, her flight controls still remain somewhat state-of-the-art with a fly-by-wire system and allows for pilot error corrections to an extent. It is believed that the radar system offers terrain following assistance as well. The two pilots make use of control sticks as found on fighters. A seldom-used in-flight refueling capability (retractable probe) is built into the Tu-160 airframe and extends the operational capability of the large bomber. However, due to its large fuel needs - coupled with the sheer size of the aircraft and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet military - the Tu-160 was not fielded in an active for some time. It was also reported that the Tu-160 exhibited some flight control problems throughout her tenure that were never resolved. Additionally, the series has shown a requirement for excessive amounts of maintenance to keep her active and airborne.
The Tu-160 makes use of two internal bomb bays. This can be used to house conventional drop ordnance as well as guided missiles and bombs. Primary armament is centered on 6 x Kh-55 cruise missiles fitted to two internal rotary launchers. This can be supplanted with 12 x Kh-15 short-range nuclear missiles using the internal rotary launcher arrangement.
Recently-instituted modernization programs intend on keeping this Russian beast flying. Updates include a digital cockpit, improved avionics, GPS integration, updated NK-32 engines, cruise missile navigation control through GPS, improved laser-guided bomb functionality and radar absorbing skin technology.
In 2005, it is believed that fourteen Tu-160s were in operation. Under Vladimir Putin's tenure, the Tu-160 has seen a resurgence of sorts as strategic aviation flights - once disbanded in 1991 - have been reinstated. Tu-160s roaming European airspace have been greeted with mistrust and interceptors have responded, albeit in a "peaceful" nature. Russian Tu-160s were last seen paying a friendly visit to Venezuelan soil in September of 2008, further deteriorating relationships between the United States and Russia.
The overall goal of the new Tu-160 initiative is to field some 30 aircraft of this type by the end of 2030. This is interesting in that it extends the life of the 1980's airframe to reach 40+ years of service. The modernization program will produce the aforementioned Tu-160M designation.
April 2015 - It was announced by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu that production of the Tu-160 strategic bomber would renew. The Russian Air Force has fifteen of the bombers in active service.
August 2015 - It was detailed that production of new Tu-160 bombers would begin soon. Another, more modernized, version will appear as the Tu-160M2 in 2023 and feature new, upgraded Kuznetsov NK-32.02 engines offering increased operational ranges (adding up to 1,000 kilometers atop the existing 14,000+ km range now offered).
July 2016 - The Tu-160 has been one of the Russian aircraft actively bombing Islamic State positions in the Syrian Civil War.
November 2017 - Tupolev has revealed its first refurbished Tu-160 bomber at its Kazan Aviation facility. A first-flight is scheduled for sometime in 2018. These will be designated as Tu-160M2 to mark the new standard and some fifty will be purchased by the Russian Air Force. Serial production is set for 2023.
January 2018 - The first modernized Tu-160 jet bomber has recorded its first flight.
February 2018 - Ten new-build Tu-160 strategic bombers have been ordered by the Russian Air Force.
May 2019 - The Russian Air Force has announced tentative plans to acquire additional modernized Tu-160 units to strengthen its strategic bomber force.
Status Active, Limited Service
[ 34 Units ] : Tupolev OKB - Russia / USSR
Russia; Soviet Union; Ukraine
- Ground Attack
177.49 ft (54.1 m)
182.74 ft (55.7 m)
42.98 ft (13.1 m)
(Showcased structural dimension values pertain to the Tupolev Tu-160 (Blackjack) production model)
242,508 lb (110,000 kg)
606,271 lb (275,000 kg)
(Showcased weight values pertain to the Tupolev Tu-160 (Blackjack) production model)
4 x Kuznetsov NK-321 turbofan engines developing 55,115 lb of thrust each.
(Showcased powerplant information pertains to the Tupolev Tu-160 (Blackjack) production model)
1,243 mph (2,000 kph; 1,080 kts)
60,039 feet (18,300 m; 11.37 miles)
8,699 miles (14,000 km; 7,559 nm)
13,780 ft/min (4,200 m/min)
(Showcased performance values pertain to the Tupolev Tu-160 (Blackjack) production model; Compare this aircraft entry against any other in our database)
Mission-specific ordnance limited to 88,160lbs of internal and external stores. An internal rotary launcher an be fitted to each of the two bomb bays. These may include any of the following or a mix of:
6 x Kh-55MS "Kent" cruise missiles on internal rotary launchers.
12 x Kh-15P "Kickback" short-range nuclear missiles on 2 x 6-shot internal rotary launchers.
Conventional Drop Bombs.
(Showcased armament details pertain to the Tupolev Tu-160 (Blackjack) production model)
Aircraft 70 - Original Program Designation
Tu-160 - Base Model Series Designation
Tu-160S - Serial Tu-160 Designation Format
Tu-160V - Experimental Liquid-Fueled Version
Tu-160 NK-74 - Upgraded Tu-160 with improved range NK-74 series engines.
Tu-160M - Modernized variant; lengthened Fuselage; capability with 2 x Kh-90 long-range missiles; expected service entry for 2020.
Tu-160M2 - Modernized variant to appear in 2023 outfitted with upgraded Kuznetsov NK-32.02 engines.
Tu-160P (Tu-161) - Extended Range Escort
Tu-160PP - Electronic Warfare Aircraft (EWA) Platform; fitted with applicable countermeasures suite.
Tu-160R - Dedicated Strategic Reconnaissance Platform.
Tu-160SK - De-Militarized Variant; used for the launching of satellites.
Tu-170 - Dedicated Conventional Bomber Variant
(Cockpit image represents the Tupolev Tu-160M Blackjack production model)
Values are derrived from a variety of categories related to the design, overall function, and historical influence of this aircraft in aviation history.
The overall rating takes into account over 60 individual factors related to this aircraft entry. The rating is out of a possible 100.
Relative Maximum Speed
This entry's maximum listed speed (1,243mph).
Graph average of 975 miles-per-hour.
Tupolev Tu-160 (Blackjack) operational range when compared to distances between major cities.
Aviation Era Span
Showcasing era cross-over of this aircraft design.
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