November 5, 2013:
Two Russian Tu-160 bombers recently (October 28
) flew 13 hours and over 10,000 kilometers to Venezuela as part of a training exercise. Russian Tu-160s did this once before, in 2008, flying the name route from northern Russia to northern Venezuela. In 2009, Venezuela offered to let Russian heavy bombers, flying in from bases in northern Russia (just east of Norway), use a Venezuelan air base (on an island off the coast) for landings and refueling. These flights are publicity stunts that serve little military purpose (except to give Norwegian and British fighters some practice intercepting Cold War vintage aircraft as they head for the high seas). The Cold War era Russian maritime air patrols were marginally useful back then but are pure PR these days. The Tu-160 flights are basically the same, although Tu-160s can carry more weapons, including cruise missiles.
The small force of Tu-160s does give Russia some unique options. Back in 2010, two Tu-160s made a record 23 hour long, 18,000 kilometer flight around the periphery of Russia. This required two in-flight refuelings from Il-78 tankers. This feat was nothing new. Back in 2009, a Tu-160 completed a 21 hour flight across the country. Although designed as a heavy bomber, the Tu-160 has largely been used, in the last few years, as a long range reconnaissance aircraft. But even in that role the Tu-160 can still carry cruise missiles and other air-to-ground weapons. But in an emergency the Tu-160s can be sent long distances to deliver tons of smart bombs and guided missiles.
Back in 2008, Russia received its first new Tu-160 heavy bomber since the early 1990s. Production had been revived in 2006. The plan was to produce one new Tu-160 every 18 months, until another 14 were built. But this plan was put on hold in favor of upgrading the equipment on current aircraft. Despite these demonstrated capabilities, earlier this year Russia cancelled a 2012 plan to increase its Tu-160 bomber force from 16 to 30 aircraft. That would have required keeping a very expensive production line going just so the Tu-160 engine manufacturer could afford to keep their production line going. Back in 2011, the Russian Air Force found that they could not order enough Tu-160 replacement engines to keep the engine factory going. The air force only wanted about five NK-32 engines a year. Each Tu-160 is fitted with four of these 3.5 ton engines. Most of these engines were built 10-20 years ago and have been overhauled several times. After a while, these engines cannot be refurbished anymore, and that's why some new ones are needed. But the manufacturer insisted the smallest economical annual production was twenty engines. Otherwise, the price per engine for five a year would be more than the government was willing to pay. One solution was to increase the number of Tu-160s in service. All of the newly manufactured Tu-160s would need engines, and with more Tu-160s in service the engine factory would get enough orders to make it economically worthwhile to themselves and the air force. But the government decided it would actually be cheaper to pay more for new engines and upgrade ten of the 16 Tu-160s so that these heavy bombers could remain in service for another decade or two until a new heavy bomber design went into production. The new heavy bomber may never happen, or it may end up being a large UAV. Either way the air force is guaranteed to have some Tu-160s into the 2020s.
The Tu-160 "Blackjack" is very similar to the 216 ton American B-1B 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. The upgrade to the Tu-160M standard will take about 18 months and cost $35 million per aircraft. The new model will have more reliable engines, some stealth capability (because of radar absorbing material on the exterior), and improved electronics (including the ability to use just about every aircraft missile in the Russian arsenal). Upgrades of the first three Tu-160s began in 2013, and all upgrades of all ten are to be completed by the end of the year.
The existing Tu-160s have proved quite capable. The air force generals believe the Tu-160 is a valuable asset and worth keeping in service. But obtaining spare parts from the post-Cold War Russian defense industries is very difficult. Many of the Cold War era firms are bankrupt and the survivors often don't produce the quality stuff they used to.
The first Tu-160 was built over three decades ago, and 35 have been built so far, although most have been retired or scrapped. Production of the Tu-160 ceased in 1994, with several of them partially completed. Apparently, the first of the recent "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. But the revived firms do not have the pick of design, management, and skilled worker talent. All the best people are working at more lucrative commercial firms.