MOSCOW — Eleven years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin famously took to the podium at the 2007 Munich Security Conference and issued a harsh rebuke to what Moscow viewed as unchecked Western unilateralism. Later that year, for the first time since the Cold War, long-range bomber patrols launched from Russia to begin probing European and North American airspace.
The practice was intended to signal a revival of withered elements of Russia’s long-range strike abilities, and to reinforce Russia’s message that it felt it wasn’t being taken seriously on matters of international security.
Since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russian bomber flights along Western airspace have become a symbol of severely degraded and contentious relations.
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But these fleets of aircraft are old and, at times, questionably maintained. Russia has not built a new long-range strategic bomber since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Tu-95 Bears, Tu-22M Backfires and Tu-160 Blackjacks have all experienced maintenance issues of some sort amid the heightened operational tempo of the past several years.
But last month, that began to change.
Stumping across the campaign trail ahead of next month’s presidential election, Putin visited the home of the Tupolev company in Kazan — a major city situated 800 kilometers east of Moscow, on the banks of the Volga river. There, surrounded by his generals and defense industry chiefs, he watched as a massive, stark-white shape emerge from a dense, low-hanging fog.
It was a Tu-160, and a brand new one at that. Built from a single airframe that sat uncompleted after the fall of the Soviet Union, the aircraft is designated as a Tu-160M to denote a modernized design. It flew for the first time last month and is the vanguard of a new Tu-160 series known as the M2 — outfitted for the modern era and built in Kazan at a relaunched production line.
“Beautiful,” Putin said of the aircraft as it swooped past the tower. “[It] only looks like the Tu-160 I flew,” he said, referring to a 2005 public relations stunt in which he took the controls of one of the 16 Soviet-built Tu-160s still in service. “But it’s a completely different machine,” he said, adding that it would strengthen Russia’s nuclear triad.
Former Soviet industrial centers have always been strongholds for Putin’s popular support in Russia. His military modernization program, begun in 2011, has flooded the defense industry in particular with procurement cash after two decades of painful decline. It is a relationship that has been mutually beneficial. In a down economy, defense spending has been protected.
Tupolev has had to wait longer than other famous Russian aircraft firms, such as MiG and Sukhoi, for the benefits of these procurement efforts to pay off.
Unlike Sukhoi, Tupolev’s civilian projects have faltered, as Russian airlines have fully embraced foreign makes from Boeing and Airbus. The old Tu-204 passenger jets are becoming an increasingly rare sight, even in Russia.
“The Tu-160M2 contract will help prevent Tupolev from losing key skills and experienced staff,” said Andrey Frolov, editor-in-chief of the Moscow Defense Brief, a monthly magazine published by the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank. “I doubt they’ll be able to continue with any civilian R&D projects beyond upgrading the Tu-204.”
As Putin departed the Kazan aviation plant to continue on the campaign trail, Tupolev was not left empty-handed. That same day, Deputy Defence Minister Yury Borisov, the military’s procurement chief, sat down with United Aircraft Corporation head Yury Slyusar to pen an agreement for 10 of the new Tu-160s.
Ultimately, the military plans to buy 50 of the aircraft.
It was a significant contract for UAC subsidiary Tupolev. The cost of this first contract stands at 160 billion roubles (nearly U.S. $2.8 billion), and stipulates delivery of the first Tu-160M2 by 2023. Delivery of the final bomber in the first buy, according to the contract, is slated for 2027. But relaunching production requires a significant investment: 37 billion roubles.
Relaunching a long-dead production line involves more than throwing money at the problem. Old-school, hand-drawn blueprints need to be digitized; design elements must be reworked to fit modern production methods; and components produced by long-gone suppliers must be resourced.
“Finding qualified staff to work on the project is another problem,” Frolov said. “They need more skilled hands than the Kazan plant has now, so they either need to headhunt them or train them from scratch.”
While ambitious, the relaunch and modernization of the Tu-160 design can be seen as settling. If the Defence Ministry and Tupolev had their way, this wouldn’t be happening at all. For the past decade, military and industry officials have spoken of a bomber development project known as PAK DA, or Prospective Aviation Complex for Long-Range Aviation. Such talk has dwindled.
PAK DA, however, was intended to be a direct replacement of the shorter-range supersonic Tu-22M3 bombers. But development of a new bomber takes time and resources, and the Russian federal budget is already stressed.
Emphasis has since focused on the Tu-160M2 project. However, Putin in Kazan again promised a PAK DA test flight by the mid-2020s.
In this case, the Tu-160M2 project may be seen as a means to retrain the industrial base on a more familiar design before moving on to produce an entirely new strategic bomber.
Regardless, the Tu-160M2 will boost the striking power of Russia’s long-range aviation forces. The aircraft will be outfitted with Russia’s latest-generation cruise missiles and a brand-new engine designed by the Kuznetsov Design Bureau, reportedly extending their range significantly. With standoff weapons, the Russian approach to bombers emphasizes range over stealth.
Their impact on European security is an open question. While they may extend Russia’s strike range, they don’t introduce any radically new capabilities or approaches to Moscow’s current arsenal.
Counts vary, but Russia has about a dozen truly operational Tu-160s and more than 50 of the older propeller-driven Tu-95s. Both see heavy deployment in Russia’s western bases.
Theoretically, today, bombers from air bases like Engels in the Saratov region could launch a heavy volley of cruise missiles at key NATO targets in the Baltic region without having to leave Russian airspace. While 10 to 50 new Tu-160M2s will strengthen that dynamic, it will not change it. And it certainly will not have any impact whatsoever until the mid-2020s.
Matthew Bodner covered Russian affairs for Defense News.