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Tu-160s Back in Production
by James Dunnigan
January 31, 2008

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Russia is building heavy bombers again. It has built at least one new Tu-160, and this aircraft began flight testing last month. Production of the Tu-160 had ceased in 1994, with several of them partially completed. Apparently, this new aircraft is one of those left uncompleted in the 1990s. Lots of Russian weapons factories were shut down after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. That occurred, in part, because the Soviet Union was, literally, bankrupt. The defense budget was cut by more than two-thirds, and weapons production got hurt the most. The only plants that kept operating were those producing items for export. But many of the shuttered factories were preserved, and now many of them are in operation again, picking up where they left off.

The Tu-160 "Blackjack" is very similar to the U.S. B-1, but never really lived up to its potential. Still, it is the most modern heavy bomber the Russians have. It's a 267 ton aircraft, that can carry up to 40 tons of bombs and missiles, for up to 12,000 kilometers. The aircraft can refuel in the air. It originally entered service in 1987, and was built mainly to deliver cruise missiles. Noting the success of the B-1 in Afghanistan and Iraq with smart bombs, the Tu-160s were modified to do the same, in addition to retaining their cruise missile carrying capability.

Over the last eight years, Russia has revived its heavy bomber force. In the 1990s, most Russian heavy bombers were kept on the ground. But since 2001, heavy bombers have been refurbished and restored to service. This including getting some Tu-160s back from Ukraine (because half of the 36 Tu-160s built were stationed in Ukraine when the Soviet Union was dissolved, and thus belonged to Ukraine). Only about fourteen Tu-160s are still operational, plus about fifty Tu-22Ms and about the same number of Tu-95s. Exact numbers are not available on the Tu-22Ms and Tu-95s, because both of these aircraft serve other functions (reconnaissance, electronic warfare). Their ability to perform as heavy bombers depends on the current state of crew training and maintenance. Most of these aircraft are at least twenty years old, and spare parts are sometimes difficult to get. Factories had to be reopened, or new production lines established, to obtain needed parts. Increasingly, over the last seven years, heavy bombers have been increasingly showing up the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic oceans, as well as the Black and Caspian seas. Some of these aircraft are firing cruise missiles, or simulating it, and practice bombing runs, during more frequent training flights.

This past Summer, Russian heavy bombers flew hundreds of sorties over land and water, including night aerial refueling (a tricky operation.) In terms of sheer numbers, the Russians have about as many heavy bombers in service (over a hundred) as does the United States. The American bombers are better equipped and more capable, but the Russian force is competitive, and now it is being expanded.

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