Two Russian Tu-160 heavy bombers recently completed 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. Last year, a Tu-160 completed a 21 hour flight. 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 carry cruise missiles and other air-to-ground weapons.
Two years ago, Russia received its first new Tu-160 heavy bomber since the early 1990s. Production had been revived four years ago. The plan is to produce one new Tu-160 every 18 months, until another 14 are built. But this plan appears to have been put aside in favor of upgrading the equipment on current aircraft. Currently, there are 16 Tu-160s in service.
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.