The full Tu-160M configuration includes a new Novella radar as well as a new self-defense suite and electronic surveillance system. The flight deck is now equipped with a ‘glass cockpit’ and the revised avionics encompass the communication suite, flight control system, and navigation suite.
Alongside the “deeply modernized” Tu-160M, Russia has also been performing a less-extensive upgrade on its Blackjack fleet, at a rate of one or two aircraft per year. This is the so-called “small modernization,” or Tu-160M1, and provides a digital upgrade for the aircraft’s inertial navigation and engine control systems, as well as armament.
Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov has said the Russian Aerospace Forces will continue to operate modernized Tu-160Ms (both upgraded and new-build examples) “until the 2050s or even the 2060s.”
The elusive PAK DA
Considering the Blackjack can now deploy conventional weapons, as well as nuclear ones, and have been combat-proven in the Syrian campaign, it’s unsurprising that Russia wants to get the most out of its supersonic strategic bombers.
On the other hand, the continued focus on the Blackjack — including the tricky task of bringing it back into production — should be seen against the prospects for the future PAK DA, which stands for Perspektivnyi Aviatsionnyi Kompleks Dalney Aviatsii, or Future Air Complex of Long-Range Aviation.
The research and development program for the PAK DA began around 2009, before the order to resume Tu-160 production. That suggests that difficulties faced by the PAK DA program led to the new bomber program’s priority being reduced in favor of the tried and tested Blackjack.
To this day, there has been no official concept art of the PAK DA, so we really have no idea what the design looks like. However, most observers expect that it will be a subsonic “flying wing” design, possibly with low-observable (stealthy) features.
Tupolev’s concept for the PAK DA was apparently approved in 2013, after which the United Aircraft Corporation received a follow-on contract for detailed design work and other contracts to develop the aircraft’s systems. The then commander of Russia’s Long-Range Aviation branch, Anatoly Zhikharev, said in late 2014 that a PAK DA prototype would fly in 2019.
In 2015, however, the idea of resuming series production of the Tu-160 appeared and with this, the urgency assigned to the PAK DA seems to have diminished. Indeed, speaking in 2018, Deputy Prime Minister Borisov described that relaunching production of the Blackjack was “a less risky path” than the PAK DA. “At the same time, we have postponed the PAK DA, to gain experience and restore technology”, he added. Borisov’s predecessor, Dmitry Rogozin, had the same year said that the PAK DA would perform its first flight in 2023 or 2024.
The prospects of the PAK DA taking to the air in that kind of timeframe seem remote, especially as the focus is now on the Tu-160’s continued upgrade and production restart, which will consume both funding and production capacity at the Kazan plant. Meanwhile, similar upgrade programs for the Tu-22M3 Backfire and Tu-95MS Bear strategic bombers further reduce the urgency of getting the PAK DA into service.
There is also the enormous cost involved in getting a sophisticated “clean-sheet” design into production and service in meaningful numbers. Moscow’s planned purchases of Sukhoi Su-57 new-generation fighters currently stand at just 76 and other expensive weapons programs have been abandoned altogether.
While the PAK DA looks like it will have to wait in the wings sometime longer, the “new” Tu-160 will, at least, provide the Russian Aerospace Forces with a very capable stopgap.
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