Warplanes: September 26, 2003


On September 18th, Russia lost one of its 15 Tu-160 "Blackjack" heavy bombers to an engine fire. The Tu-160 is roughly equivalent to the U.S. B-1 bomber. The Russians have been refurbishing their fleet of Tu-160s so that the aircraft can each carry a dozen of the new Kh-101 cruise missiles, or  smart bombs. A 1980s design, the Tu-160 is the most modern bomber the Russians have. There are also 63 Tu-95MS "Bear" strategic bombers (a 1950s design prop-jet), and 117 Tu-22M3 "Backfire" (a smaller 1970s design). The Russians have not been able to upgrade their bombers as much as the U.S. has improved their 1950s era B-52s. The Russian bombers are expensive to operate (the engines last less than a third as long as Western ones) and require larger crews. The Tu-160 had the same tortured, and expensive, development as the American B-1. Because of the expense, only 36 (of 100 planned) Tu-160s were built. When the Soviet Union, collapsed in 1991, 19 of those were in Ukraine, which took possession, but did nothing with them. Left outdoors, the Tu-160s rusted away, and 11 were destroyed as part of a disarmament treaty Ukraine signed with the United States. But three years ago, the eight remaining Ukrainian Tu-160s were put back into flying shape and traded to Russia in payment for debts. So 14 of the original 36 Tu-160s remain in flying order. The rest are used for spare parts. The Tu-160 is a large, swing-wing aircraft. It weighs 275 tons and is 179 feet long. It can carry up to 40 tons of bombs and missiles, but usually carries nine tons, on missions of up to 14,000 kilometers. It has a crew of four and entered service in 1987. 


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