Russian Air Force to Receive Four Tu-160Ms Strategic Bombers Within Four Months

The Russian Air Force is set to receive four Tu-160M strategic bombers before the end of 2023, placing the service in a unique position in terms of the number of intercontinental range combat aircraft it is commissioning at a time when neither the U.S. nor China are making similar acquisitions. The Air Force is expected to field 70 Tu-160M bombers, with production reported in January to be set to undergo significant expansion. The first Tu-160M made its first flight in January 2022, and is an enhanced variant of the Soviet Union’s most capable strategic bomber class the Tu-160 which first entered service in 1986. Enhancements include integration of entirely new avionics, NK-32-02 engines for reduced maintenance needs and a superior flight performance and endurance, and a range of new armaments most notably Kh-101/102 cruise missiles. A range of hypersonic weapons are currently under development for the aircraft. While the Soviet Air Force was initially expected to field approximately 100 Tu-160s when production was scheduled to conclude in the 2000s, the state’s disintegration cut the program short and left the bulk of the fleet in Ukraine – which went on to destroy much of it under pressure from the West. As a result Russia today fields only 16 of the Soviet built jets, with the remaining 54 expected to be newly built. 

The Tu-160 is the largest and fastest bomber class in the world, and is currently widely considered the world’s most capable. Russia is nevertheless thought to be far behind China and the United States in developing a 21st century stealth bomber, with the American B-21 and Chinese H-20 both expected to enter service around 2030 and enjoy significant performance advantages over the Tu-160. Delays to Russia’s own program to develop a next generation strategic bomber, the PAK DA, are thought to have been a key reason why the decision was made to invest in resuming production of the Tu-160. With China having yet to field any intercontinental range bombers, and the United States having produced none since the year 2000, the Tu-160 stands out among aircraft of its kind as the only class in production. The aircraft’s global reach is particularly critical for post-Soviet Russia due to the lack of an ocean going surface navy, as the USSR had previously been able to rely on assets such as destroyers and cruisers to project power overseas. Tu-160s have accordingly frequently played important roles in political signalling despite their small numbers. Operations have ranged from patrolling the Arctic or Indian Ocean and striking insurgent targets in Syria to conducting shows of force in Venezuela and most recently launching precision strikes against targets in Ukraine.