In yet another push toward upgrading the air-based leg of its nuclear triad, Russia will overhaul eight Tupolev Tu-160 and Tupolev Tu-95MS strategic bombers by the end of 2018, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said in June.
“By the end of this year eight such planes are to be overhauled. This will prolong their life cycle and enhance combat capabilities,” Shoigu was quoted as saying by TASS news agency during a June 29 conference call.
The Russian Air Force currently operates 16 Tu-160, half of which are reportedly not airworthy, as well as around 60 Tu-95MS (including about a dozen upgraded Tu-95MSM variants) with an estimated two-thirds of the latter not combat-ready.
The nuclear-capable Tupolev Tu-95MS, and its improved Tu-95MSM variant, is a four-engine, long-range, turboprop, strategic bomber that can be armed with a wide range of weapons including nuclear stand-off cruise missiles.
The Russian Air Force intends to field a total of 20 Tu-95MSM bombers in the coming years. (Russian Tu-95MS bombers have repeatedly conducted aerial patrols in the Western Pacific, often in close vicinity to Japanese airspace, over the last two years.)
The long-range, supersonic Tu-160 currently in service with the Russian Air Force is an upgraded variant of the Cold War-era Soviet Tu-160 heavy strategic bomber introduced into service in 1987. It is the last strategic bomber to enter service prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
A new variant, designated Tu-160M2, is expected to enter service in the early 2020s with the first bomber expected to be delivered to the Russian Air Force by the end of this year. (The upgraded Tu-160 bombers mentioned by Shoigu above will still be of an older variant.)
Russian President Vladimir Putin mandated the overhaul of Russia’s Tu-160 force due to delays in the next-generation strategic stealth bomber project, dubbed PAK DA (an acronym for “Prospective Aviation Complex for Long-Range Aviation”) in 2015.
The Tu-160M2 will feature upgraded avionics and a new special coating, according to Russian defense officials, to reduce the plane’s radar signature. Crucially, the bomber will also be fitted with a new engine. However, designing and building a next-generation engine has proven difficult for the Russian aviation industry to date, as I noted previously:
[The] Russian military aircraft industry still is having trouble with the bomber’s new engine. (…) The Tu-160M2 is expected to be fitted with the new Kuznetsov NK-32-2 turbofan engine, providing increased maneuverability and range.
(…) The Russian aircraft industry began testing a non-afterburning variant of the Kuznetsov NK-32 engine, purportedly the largest and most powerful turbofan jet engine ever fitted on a bomber, in October . The new engine will reportedly increase the new bomber’s operational range by up to 1,000 kilometers.
It is still unclear when the engine will be cleared for serial production.
Overall, the Russian Air Force plans to induct at least 50 Tu-160M2s at a rate of three aircraft per year beginning in 2023. Delivery of the first ten bombers is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2027.
Like its Soviet predecessors, both the Tu-95SMS and Tu-160M2 will be able to carry long-range standoff cruise missiles, including the Kh-101/Kh-102 (nuclear variant) air-launched cruise missile as well as the Kh-55 subsonic air-launched cruise missile.