Russia's Tupolev Public Joint Stock Company has flown the first new-production Tu-160M strategic missile carrier. The aircraft’s January 12 maiden flight was undertaken at the Kazan Aviation Plant airfield, and lasted for around 30 minutes. The short flight validated the aircraft’s basic stability and controllability, reaching an altitude of around 2,000 feet.
The aircraft in question is the first new-build example of the Tu-160—code-named “Blackjack” by NATO and nicknamed the “White Swan”—to take to the air since 1995. A decision to re-start Tu-160 production was taken in 2015 to cover an expected strategic bomber capability gap caused by the delayed development of the PAK-DA low-observable bomber. An initial contract for 10 new-build aircraft was signed in January 2018, with a stated requirement for an eventual total of 50 new aircraft. The first two new-production aircraft are due to be handed over to the VKS Russian air force later in 2022.
Currently, the VKS operates a fleet of 17 Tu-160s with the 121st Guards Heavy Bomber Regiment at Engels-2 airbase near Saratov. The “Blackjack” first entered service in 1987 with the 184th Regiment in Ukraine, where 19 aircraft were stationed, and which were claimed by Ukraine on the break-up of the Soviet Union. Russia took back eight in 1999 and the remainder were scrapped.
Limited production in the 1990s added six more aircraft, the last being delivered in 1995. Subsequently, three additional aircraft were produced from partially built airframes, the latest being handed over to the VKS in 2018. Experience with completing this last aircraft was instrumental in introducing modern manufacturing processes in preparation for new production, which is now based on digitized documentation.
As well as launching the manufacture of new aircraft, the Tu-160 fleet has been subject to a series of upgrades. The first phase (earlier referred to as Tu-160M1) involved new navigation and autopilot systems, as well as the removal of the redundant bomb-sighting system. This entered service in late 2014, a year before the “Blackjack” made its combat debut over Syria.
The second and most far-reaching phase—originally known as the Tu-160M2 but now referred to as just Tu-160M—has resulted in upgrades applied to what parent company United Aircraft Corporation claims is 80 percent of the aircraft’s systems. A new digital mission avionics suite and large-screen cockpit displays are installed, as is a new NV-70M Novella radar and electronic warfare suite. A partially-modernized prototype flew in January 2018, and the first aircraft fully upgraded with these systems took to the air in February 2020.
A key element of the ultimate Tu-160M is the adoption of new engines. The original 55,000-pound thrust Kuznetsov NK-32 powerplant has been out of production since the 1990s. To meet the needs of new production an improved version was developed. Designated NK-32-02, the engine develops the same thrust as the original, but thanks to an internal redesign is more efficient, translating to a claimed 13 percent increase in range. A Tu-160M fitted with the new engines flew for the first time at Kazan on November 3, 2020.