Air force procurement plans part 2: Long range bombers

Compared to fighters and ground attack aircraft, the situation with Russia’s long range bombers looks quite dire. The current inventory consists of three kinds of aircraft:

  • 16 Tu-160 strategic bombers. These supersonic long range bombers were designed in the 1980s and have been in limited service since the 1990s. They have a maximum speed of Mach 2 and a range of over 12,000 km without in-flight refueling. They can be armed with either conventional cruise missiles or nuclear missiles.
  • 64 Tu-95MS strategic bombers. These turboprop long range bombers have been around since the 1950s, though the MS version currently in service was designed in the 1970s and built between 1982 and 1992. They have a maximum speed of 920 km/hour and a range of up to 15,000 km. They are generally armed with conventional cruise missiles such as the Kh-55 or Kh-555.
  • 93 Tu-22M3 long range supersonic bombers (with another 90 or so Tu-22M2 and M3 in long term storage. There are also 50-60 operated by naval aviation.) These planes were designed in the early 1970s and built between 1976 and the late 1980s. They have a maximum speed of 2000 km/hour and a range of up to 1800 6800 km and are armed with Kh-22 cruise missiles and/or free-fall bombs.

These planes were virtually inactive between 1993 and 2007, when continuous patrols were resumed. Since then, planes have been getting an average of 80-100 hours of flight time per year. While the 15 years of inactivity has somewhat extended the lifespan of the older airframes, lack of maintenance and aging equipment has made the need for modernization quite urgent. Currently, 4-6 Tu-95s and 2-3 Tu-160s are being modernized each year, primarily including improvements in targeting and navigational systems. Starting in 2013, the Tu-160s are supposed to receive new engines, which may further extend their lifespan. But Russian manufacturers have long had problems with aircraft engines, so I won’t be surprised if this refurbishment is delayed.

Until recently, another problem with Russia’s long range bombers was the lack of conventional guided weapons. The Kh-555 cruise missile, with a stated accuracy of 20 meters and a range of 2000-3500 km, is filling this gap. The Kh-101, with similar accuracy and a range of 5000-5500 km, is currently in testing. Both of these missiles will be used on both the Tu-160 and Tu-95 bombers. There are no particular plans for purchases of new types of long range bombers. The PAK DA program is in development but, as Ilya Kramnik recently pointed out, the design has been assigned to the Tupolev design bureau. While it has a long and proud history of designing such bombers in the past, Tupolev has been in crisis for some years and currently lacks the staff and equipment to meet expectations.

Overall, Russia’s existing long range bombers can be expected to continue to operate for at least the next two decades, and the Tu-160s perhaps for three decades after the engine modernization is complete. So the military certainly has time on its side in terms of coming up with a new design for a next generation long range bomber.

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