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Soviet TU-160: The Supersonic “White Swan” of Russian Aircraft

The White Swan is back – bigger, faster and heavier than ever. This is an aircraft that comes with a variety of names, known formally in Russia as the Tu-160, as Blackjack to Nato countries but also with the regal title of the ‘White Swan’, this is an aircraft that has been shattering records ever since its deployment over 30 years ago. 

The Americans can keep their Stealth Bombers and B-1 Lancers, in the Tu-160, the Russians have the fastest and heaviest Mach 2 + (2,469 km/h – 1,534 mph +) supersonic bomber currently on the market. But why stop there? It is also the largest and heaviest combat aircraft, the fastest bomber in the world and the largest and heaviest aircraft with a variable-sweep wing design ever to soar into the skies.

Air-to-air with a Tupolev Tu-160

And yet, it is also an aircraft with a complicated history. First introduced ten years before the collapse of the Soviet Union but not fully entering service until 1987, the Tu-160 began life at exactly the wrong time for any budding piece of Soviet military hardware. Its production soon stalled and with 19 of the old Soviet Union’s Tu 160s stationed in what became Ukraine once again, it appeared as if the story of the White Swan would be nothing more than a brief, dazzling cameo.  

Early Concepts 

As the Cold War developed into the largest, greediest and arguably most moronic arms race in history, the US and the Soviet Union were both eager to gain the upper hand. Before things got to the point of being able to push a button and launch a series of intercontinental missiles that would effectively end humanity as we know it, both nations saw high-altitude strategic bombers carrying thermonuclear bombs as the best way of destroying an enemy city. 

In the Soviet Union, the planning for such an aircraft capable of supersonic speeds began back in 1952. The first design that emerged was known as Project 108, an aircraft designed to be able to take-off from the USSR, fly to the U.S, drop a bomb and scamper home before the Americans knew what had hit them. This soon developed into the more advanced Project 135, but while things were progressing smoothly in the USSR, the introduction of the Nike Hercules Ground to Air Missile and the Delta Dart Interceptor in the U.S now formed a fearsome protective shield across American skies. The Soviet knew that any strategic bombing raid would likely fail and both projects were shelved.

As intercontinental missiles burst onto the scene, it seemed as if the time was up for long-range strategic bombers before it had even really started.   

A Show of Strength 

But while intercontinental missiles were great at hitting specific targets from thousands of miles away, what they couldn’t do was act as a show of strength, which was vital for both sides. Shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet leaders decided that in fact, they did want – or need – depending on how you look at it – a series of high-altitude strategic supersonic nuclear bombers. Even if they were never used to attack an enemy target, their speed and power would amplify Soviet might. 

Now, that might sound utterly absurd, but we are talking about the Cold War here. To give you a good idea about the ridiculous extremes of brinkmanship you need look no further than the detonation of the Tsar Bomb in 1961, the largest nuclear explosion in history and perhaps the biggest show of nationalistic strength to ever come out of the Soviet Union. And luckily for you, we’ve recently covered it on Megaprojects so why not take a look after this video. 

Suddenly, strategic bombers were back in vogue and to make matters worse for the Soviet Union, the American B-1 Lancer was in development and nearing completion. As was often the case back in the USSR a series of competitions was held aimed at pitting various design bureaus against one another to design an aircraft that could match and even out-perform the B-1. 

In 1974, the Tupolev design bureau was chosen and charged with designing and building what would eventually go on to become the TU-160. Their demands were fairly straightforward in the most wildly ambitious Soviet kind of way. It would need to carry a wide variety of missiles, both nuclear and conventional, and be capable of intercontinental travel at high-altitude and supersonic speeds. The aircraft would also need to be able to land and take-off from a relatively short runway and also be able to penetrate air defences at low altitude. Soviet authorities not only wanted to have their cake and eat it but also to drop a bomb from 16,000 metres (52,000 ft) on the cake shop so nobody else could have any cake. 

It was a dizzying set of requirements that looked insurmountable and it’s, therefore, no surprise that over 800 different design bureaus, scientific institutes and production plants were involved in the planning and building of the TU-160. 

The first aircraft was built at the Tupolev plant in Moscow and came with various hugely innovative features, not least the new fly-by-wire system, a semi-automatic computer regulated system that gave the aircraft the feel of a nimble jet fighter and not a bulky bomber. The traditional, lumbering controls included on bombers were changed to the more manoeuvrable fighter stick, which was said to be a big hit with the younger fighter pilots. The Tu-160 had over 100 different computers onboard, controlling everything from altitude and thrust to individual missile controls and radar detection.    

It also came with a lifting body configuration meaning that the fuselage contributed to the lift of the aircraft and not just the wings as per normal. This was an aircraft design that first appeared back in 1917, but was frequently rejected because its lift was insufficient at slower airspeeds. This meant that the aircraft came with a fairly large, yet aerodynamically smooth, central fuselage section that had the additional benefit of being able to carry plenty of fuel. 

Another striking design difference was the aircraft sweep wing design, meaning the wings point slightly backwards rather than straight across, a feature that almost all supersonic aircraft have as that’s the optimal design at high speed. The wings can be used in two different positions, sweeped, pointing further back for faster speeds, and spread, a more traditional design used for slower speeds and landing and take-off. 

The first test flight of a Tu-160 occurred on 18th December 1981 at the Flight Research Institute and was deemed a great success. Shortly after, the project was given the green light to begin production on a much larger scale. The plan was to build around 100 Tu160s, but as Bob Dylan famously sang, times they are a changin.  

The Tu-160

One charge levelled at the Tu-160 fairly early on was its apparent similarities to the American B-1 Lancer, especially after an unauthorised picture of the aircraft sat at the Zhukovsky Airfield in November 1981 was published in a foreign aviation magazine. Had the Soviets somehow stolen the B-1’s design? Let’s be honest, it wouldn’t have been the first time that something like that had been attempted nor would it be the last, but while B-1 and Tu-160 might share some structural similarities, they are two very different aircraft. As much as the Americans would have gleefully loved it if it had simply been a B-1 rip-off, the Tu-160 was a significantly better aircraft in many ways. 

The Tu-160 has undergone various modernizations, most recently as last year. We’re going to go through some of the aspects of the aircraft and these were all correct as of around 2005, later on, in the video, I’ll explain some of the more modern changes. 

This powerhouse of a high-altitude strategic bomber comes with a crew of four, a pilot, a co-pilot, a bombardier and a defensive systems officer. It measures 54.1 metres (177 ft 6 in) in length, with a wingspan of 35.6 metres (117 ft) when swept and 55.7 metres (182 ft 9 in) when spread conventionally.  

It is powered by four Samara NK-321 afterburning turbofan engines, with 30,900 lbf dry thrust each dry, and 55,000 lbf with afterburner. To give you an idea of the difference with the B-1 Lancer, the American engines give off the same power when in afterburner mode as the Tu-160 does when operating dry and the NK-321 is widely believed to be the most powerful jet engine in operation today. 

The aircraft has a maximum speed of 2,220 km/h (1,380 mph) – which equates to Mach 2.05 – and a service ceiling of 16,000 metres (52,000 ft). It comes with a range of 12,300 km (7,600 miles), although this is severely reduced if deployed in combat. The plane comes with five separate fuel bays located either in the fuselage or in the wings and can carry a total of 171 tons of fuel. That sounds like an enormous amount of fuel, but the Tu-160 burns through fuel like there’s no tomorrow and is commonly refuelled mid-air for longer missions. The aircraft itself has an empty take-off weight of a massive 110 tons – almost exactly half that of a 747 passenger airliner and 23 tons heavier than the B-1.  

As you can probably imagine the aircraft lands at a high speed and requires three parachutes to slow it down which are deployed out of the back of the aircraft. Near to this is the Baikal on-board self-defence system which detects and jams radar threats. If need be, it can also use a series of decoy heat flares to throw off the scent of incoming missiles. 

In terms of its own arsenal, the Tu-160 comes with two internal weapon bays capable of holding a combined 45,000 kg (99,208 lb) of ordnance and two internal rotary launchers each capable of holding 6 Raduga Kh-55SM cruise missiles or 12 AS-16 Kickback short-range nuclear missiles. Basically, if you’ve annoyed Russia, this is not the aircraft you want flying through your airspace. 

Operational History  

As I said right at the start of the video, the Tu-160 entered full operations in 1987. Though it’s unlikely many would have guessed that the end of the Soviet Union was just 4 years away, this was already a difficult time for the USSR.  

But things started well for the new aircraft, even as the USSR began to implode. It was lavishly paraded at events and in 1989 and 1990 it set no fewer than 44 world speed flight records in its weight class.

The gradual unravelling of the Soviet came over several years but really kicked on in 1991. At this time, 19 Tu-160s were stationed in what became again an independent Ukraine. In an instant, Russia had lost a large selection of its new aircraft and Ukraine were playing hardball. They demanded $3 billion ($5.1 billion today) in the mid-1990s for the return of the aircraft, which Russia saw as entirely unreasonable – and it’s difficult to argue with that, but considering what Ukraine went through during the days of the Soviet Union you might say some reparations were due. But without Russian technical support and spare parts, the aircraft were of no use to Ukraine, and they sat ideal as both sides dug their heels in. 

President Boris Yeltsin ( Russia )
President Boris Yeltsin ( Russia ) by Presidential Press is licensed under CC-BY

Back in 1992, new Russian President and heroic drinker, Boris Yeltsin had cancelled the production of any further Tu-160s with 35 aircraft under construction at the time, no doubt for financial reasons as the new Russian state creaked alarmingly as it slowly clambered to its feet as a single country again.  

In 1999, NATO began its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia and this seems to have spurred on the Russians to finally end the standoff with Ukraine and a $285 million ($449 million today) deal took eight Tu-160 and three Tu-95MS back to Russia. By the end of 2001, the number of Tu-160s stood at 15 (soon to be reduced to 14 after a crash) and the following year plans to modernise the aircraft were unveiled.

And it was around this time that the Russian bear once again began flexing its muscles. In 2006, it was reported that a Tu-160 had travelled undetected through U.S controlled airspace in the Arctic region. This was never confirmed nor denied by the Americans so we’ll have to take the Russians for their word on that. In 2007, President Putin announced that Russian bombers would once again begin long-range “patrols”, something they hadn’t done since the collapse of the USSR. Remember what I said a while ago about needing a show of strength? Well, this was exactly it. Tu-160s have since popped up all over the globe, sometimes authorised, many times not and have on numerous occasions been escorted out of sovereign airspace by foreign jets. No doubt to the sound of cackling emanating from the Kremlin.   

On 10th June 2010, two Tu-160s broke the flight record with a 23-hour patrol covering a massive 8,000 km (4,970 miles) by flying along the Russian border and over neutral waters in the Arctic and Pacific Oceans. 

As far as we know, the Tu-160 fleet has only ever been used in combat operations in Syria. On 17th November 2015, several Tu-160 and Tu-95MS began striking targets in Idlib and Aleppo, reportedly using the Kh-101 air-launched cruise missiles. A total of 34 cruise missiles were fired, destroying 14 targets. There were also reports of them being involved with operations against ISIS, but this was much less clear. Considering the design process for this aircraft began over 65 years prior, it was quite remarkable that it had taken so long for them to enter real combat. 

The White Swan Reemerges

In 2015, the decision was taken to restart the Tu-160 production program and in January 2018, the Russian Ministry of Defense signed a contract for 10 new Tu-160s, costing roughly $270 million each. It’s expected that the first aircraft will appear sometime in 2021. 

On 3rd November 2020, the Russian United Aircraft Corporation tweeted that a ‘deeply modernised’ Tu-160M had just completed its maiden voyage using its new serial NK-32-02 engines, which are broadly similar in terms of output to the old engines but offer increased efficiency, which apparently adds around 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) to the bomber’s range.   

The flight was said to have taken place at an altitude of 6,000 metres (20,000 ft) and lasted roughly 2 hours and 20 minutes. Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti reported that the aircraft “was equipped with new flight and navigation equipment, an onboard communications system, modernized control system, radar, and electronic countermeasures system.” It’s pretty safe to assume that when the entirely new Tu-160s appear sometime in 2021 they will also come with this plethora of new technology. 

And so you have it, the aircraft that began life back in the early 1950s is now preparing for life in 2021. Like much of what came out of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the Tu-160 was all about power and that indomitable x-factor, but it appeared on the scene at precisely the wrong time. However, with Russia now giving it the big Soviet blast from the past, the Tu-160 has finally found its place in the world that it was designed for all along. Long, slightly menacing patrols often into foreign airspace. A superb, deadly, record-breaking bomber in a world where there is, thankfully, just not that much to bomb.  

Tupolev Tu-160 – Wikipedia

World’s Most Powerful Combat Aircraft Jet Engine Is Back In Production For Russia’s New Bombers (thedrive.com)

Fastest, Largest, Heaviest Bomber Ever Built – Russian Tu-160 Has One ‘Chink In Its Armour’ – US Experts (eurasiantimes.com)

Modernized Tu-160 to boost Russia’s long-range striking power (defensenews.com)

Tupolev Tu-160 (Blackjack) (militaryfactory.com)

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