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Tupolev Tu-160

Tupolev Tu-160 in flight over Russia (May 2014)
Role Supersonic strategic bomber and missile carrier
National origin Soviet Union
Design group Tupolev
Built by Kazan Aircraft Production Association
First flight 19 December 1981
Introduction 30 December 2005 (IOC in 1987)
Status In service
Primary user Russian Air Force
Produced 1984–1992, 2000, 2008
Number built 35

The Tupolev Tu-160 Beliy Lebed (or White Swan[1], Russian: Туполев Ту-160, NATO reporting name: Blackjack) is a supersonic, variable-sweep wing heavy strategic bomber designed by the Tupolev Design Bureau in the Soviet Union. Although several civil and military transport aircraft are larger in overall dimensions, the Tu-160 is the world's largest combat aircraft, largest supersonic aircraft and largest variable-sweep aircraft built. Only the North American XB-70 Valkyrie had higher empty weight and maximum speed. The Tu-160 has the heaviest take off weight of any military aircraft besides transports.

Entering service in 1987, the Tu-160 was the last strategic bomber designed for the Soviet Union. The Long Range Aviation branch of the Russian Air Force has 16 aircraft with fewer in active use. The Tu-160 active fleet has been undergoing upgrades to electronics systems since the early 2000s. The Tu-160M modernisation programme has begun with the first new updated aircraft delivered in December 2014.


  • Development 1
    • Origins 1.1
    • Modernization 1.2
  • Design 2
  • Operational history 3
  • Variants 4
  • Operators 5
    • Former 5.1
  • Specifications (Tu-160) 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
    • Notes 8.1
    • Bibliography 8.2
  • External links 9



The first competition for a supersonic strategic heavy bomber was launched in the Soviet Union in 1967. In 1972, the Soviet Union launched a new multi-mission bomber competition to create a new supersonic, variable-geometry ("swing-wing") heavy bomber with a maximum speed of Mach 2.3, in response to the US Air Force B-1 bomber project. The Tupolev design, dubbed Aircraft 160M, with a lengthened blended wing layout and incorporating some elements of the Tu-144, competed against the Myasishchev M-18 and the Sukhoi T-4 designs.[2]

Tu-160 in flight

Work on the new Soviet bomber continued despite an end to the B-1A and in the same year, the design was accepted by the government committee. The prototype was photographed by an airline passenger at a Zhukovsky Airfield in November 1981, about a month before the aircraft's first flight on 18 December 1981. Production was authorized in 1984, beginning at Kazan Aircraft Production Association.[3]


Like many Soviet weapon systems, the Tu-160 struggled to overcome unreliable components and a lack of maintenance during the 1990s. The original systems were faulty and required major rework using up-to-date computer chip and circuit boards. The modernised aircraft were then accepted into Russian service again after testing in late 2005.[4][5] The upgrade also integrated the ability to launch two new conventional versions of the long-range Kh-55 nuclear cruise missile - the Kh-101 and Kh-555.[6][7][8] Although Russia has overstated the progress of the modernisation project, it seems that the project has been restricted by the lack of up-to-date facilities to keep aircraft flying. This resulted in the delivery of a new-build aircraft but the "first modernised Tu-160" in July 2006 did not receive new avionics, although they were planned for the new airframe.[5][9][10]

The modernisation appears to be split into two phases, concentrating on life extension with some initial communication–navigation updates, followed by 10 aircraft receiving new engines and capability upgrades after 2016.[4] The first refitted aircraft was delivered to the VVS in May 2008; a follow-up contract to overhaul three aircraft in 2013 cost RUR3.4 billion (US$103m).[11] The first updated M-model Tu-160 was delivered in December 2014.[12][13][14] Although the phase I update was due to be completed by 2016, industrial limitations may delay it to 2019 or beyond.[15] Although Kuznetsov designed an NK-32M engine with improved reliability over the troublesome NK-32 engines, its successor company has struggled to deliver working units. Metallist-Samara JSC had not produced new engines for a decade when it was given a contract in 2011 to overhaul 26 of the existing engines, by two years later, only four were finished.[15] Ownership and financial issues hinder the prospects of a new production line; the firm insists it needs a minimum of 20 engines ordered per year but the government is only prepared to pay for 4-6 engines per year.[15][16] A further improved engine has been bench tested and may enter production in 2016 or later.[4]

On 29 April 2015, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was quoted as saying that Russia was resuming production of the Tu-160.[17][18] On 28 May 2015 the Russian news agency TASS: Russia reported that the Russian Air Force will purchase at least 50 new-build Tu-160s and that production of the aircraft will restart at the Kazan aviation plant.[19] General Viktor Bondarev has said that development of the PAK DA will continue alongside resumption of production of the older model bomber.[20]


Cockpit view of a Tu-160

The Tu-160 is a variable-geometry wing aircraft. The aircraft employs a fly-by-wire control system with a blended wing profile, and full-span slats are used on the leading edges, with double-slotted flaps on the trailing edges.[21] The Tu-160 has a crew of four (pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, and defensive systems operator) in K-36LM ejection seats.[22]

The Tu-160 is powered by four Kuznetsov NK-32 afterburning turbofan engines, the most powerful ever fitted to a combat aircraft. Unlike the American B-1B Lancer, which reduced the original Mach 2+ requirement for the B-1A to achieve a smaller radar cross-section, the Tu-160 retains variable intake ramps, and is capable of reaching Mach 2.05 speed at altitude.[23] The Tu-160 is equipped with a probe-and-drogue in-flight refueling system for extended-range missions, although it is rarely used. The Tu-160's internal fuel capacity of 130 tons gives the aircraft a roughly 15-hour flight endurance at a cruise speed of around 850 km/h (Mach 0.77, 530 mph) at 9,145 m (30,003 ft).[24] In February 2008, Tu-160 bombers and Il-78 refueling tankers practiced air refueling during air combat exercise, as well as MiG-31, A-50 and other Russian combat aircraft.[25]

The aircraft carries an Obzor-K (Survey) radar for tracking ground and air targets, and a separate Sopka (Hill) Terrain-following radar.[26] Although the Tu-160 was designed for reduced detectability to both radar (dielectric nose radome) and infrared signature,[27] it is not a stealth aircraft. Nevertheless, Lt. Gen. Igor Khvorov claimed that Tu-160s managed to penetrate the US sector of the Arctic undetected on 25 April 2006, leading to a USAF investigation according to a Russian source.[28]

Tupolev Tu-160 at the 2013 Moscow Victory Day parade

Weapons are carried in two internal bays, each capable of holding 20,000 kg (44,400 lb) of free-fall weapons or a rotary launcher for nuclear missiles; additional missiles may also be carried externally. The aircraft's total weapons load capacity is 40,000 kg (88,185 lb).[29] No defensive weapons are provided; the Tu-160 is the first post-World War II Soviet bomber to lack such defenses.

A demilitarized, commercial version of the Tu-160, named Tu-160SK, was displayed at Asian Aerospace in Singapore in 1994 with a model of a small space vehicle named Burlak[30] attached underneath the fuselage.

While similar in appearance to the American B-1 Lancer, the Tu-160 is a different class of combat aircraft, its primary role being a standoff missile platform (strategic missile carrier). The Tu-160 is also larger and faster than the B-1B and has a slightly greater combat range, though the B-1B has a larger combined payload.[31] Another significant difference is that the colour scheme on the B-1B Lancer is usually subdued dark gray to reduce visibility; the Tu-160 is painted with anti-flash white, giving it the nickname among Russian airmen "White Swan".[32]

Operational history

Soviet officers in front of a Tupolev Tu-160 in September 1989

In April 1987, the Tu-160 entered operational service,[33] the 184th Guards Heavy Bomber Regiment (GvTBAP) in Pryluky in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic were the first to receive the new bomber, replacing their Tu-16 and Tu-22M3 aircraft. Squadron deployments to Long Range Aviation began that month, prior to the Tu-160 being first publically presented in a parade in 1989. In 1989 and 1990, a total of 44 world speed flight records in its weight class were set. In 1992, Russia unilaterally suspended its flights of strategic aviation in remote regions.

A total of 19 Tu-160s were stationed inside the newly-independent Ukraine during the fall of the Soviet Union. On 25 August 1991, the Ukrainian parliament decreed that the new nation would take control of all military units on its territory; a Defence Ministry was created that same day. By the mid-1990s, the Pryluky Regiment had lost its value as a combat unit; 19 Tu-160s were effectively grounded due to a lack of technical support and spare parts. Ukraine considered the Tu-160s to be a bargaining chip in economic negotiations with Russia and of limited value from a military standpoint. Discussions over the Tu-160s were lengthy due to price disagreements. While Russian experts, who examined the aircraft at the Pryluky Air Base in 1993 and 1996, assessed their technical condition as good, the $3 billion price proposed by Ukraine was unacceptable. Due to the stalled negotiations; in April 1998, Ukraine decided to commence scrapping the aircraft under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Agreement. In November, the first Tu-160 was chopped up at Pryluky.[34]

In April 1999, immediately after NATO began its air attacks against Serbia, Russia resumed talks with Ukraine about the strategic bombers, proposing to purchase eight Tu-160s and three Tu-95MS models manufactured in 1991 (those in the best technical condition), as well as 575 Kh-55MS missiles. An agreement was reached and a $285 million contract was signed, the value of which was deducted from Ukraine's debt for natural gas. A group of Russian military experts went to Ukraine on 20 October 1999 to prepare the aircraft for the flight to Engels-2 air base. The first two aircraft (a Tu-160 and a Tu-95MS) departed Pryluky on 5 November. During the months that followed, the seven other "Blackjacks" flew to Engels, with the last two arriving on 21 February 2001.[34]

Russian President Vladimir Putin inside the cabin of a Tu-160 in August 2005

Along with the re-purchase of Ukrainian aircraft, Russia's Defence Ministry sought other ways of rebuilding the fleet at Engels. In June 1999, the Ministry placed a contract with the Kazan Aircraft Production Association for a delivery of a single, almost complete, bomber. The aircraft was the second aircraft in the eighth production batch and it arrived at Engels on 10 September. It was commissioned into service as "07" on 5 May 2000.[34] The unit that was operating the fleet from Engels was the 121st Guards Heavy Bomber Regiment. It formed up in early 1992 and by 1994 it had received 6 aircraft. By the end of February 2001, the fleet stood at 15 with the addition of the eight aircraft from Ukraine and the new-build.[34] As of 2001, six additional Tu-160 have served as experimental aircraft at Zhukovski, four remaining airworthy.

The Air Force fleet was reduced to 14 by the crash of the Mikhail Gromov during flight trials of a replacement engine on 18 September 2003.[35] It would be brought up to 16 aircraft by the completion of a part-built aircraft in June 2006 and the delivery of the Vitaly Kopylov on 29 April 2008.[36] Following acceptance of the testing of the prototype of the long-awaited avionics upgrades the Tu-160 formally entered service with the Russian Air Force by a presidential decree of 30 December 2005.[5][37]

On 17 August 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was resuming the strategic aviation flights stopped in 1991, sending its bombers on long-range patrols.[38] On 14 September 2007, British and Norwegian fighters intercepted two Tu-160s in international airspace near the UK and Finland.[39][40] On 25 December 2007, two Blackjacks came close to Danish airspace, and two Danish Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons scrambled to intercept and identify them.[41]

A Tu-160 is intercepted by an RAF Tornado F3 in March 2010

According to Russian government sources, on 11 September 2007, a Tu-160 deployed a massive fuel-air explosive device, the Father of All Bombs, for its first field test.[42] Some military analysts expressed skepticism that the weapon was actually delivered by a Blackjack.[43]

On 28 December 2007, the first flight of a new Tu-160 was reported to have taken place following completion of the aircraft at the Kazan Aviation Plant.[44] After flight testing, the bomber joined the Russian Air Force on 29 April 2008, bringing the total number of aircraft in service to 16. One new Tu-160 is expected to be built every one to two years until the active inventory reaches 30 or more aircraft by 2025–2030.[45][46]

On 10 September 2008, two Russian Tu-160 landed in Venezuela as part of military manoeuvres, announcing an unprecedented deployment to Russia's ally at a time of increasingly tense relations between Russia and the United States. The Russian Ministry of Defence said Vasily Senko and Aleksandr Molodchiy were on a training mission. It said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies, that the aircraft would conduct training flights over neutral waters before returning to Russia. Its spokesman added that the aircraft were escorted by NATO fighters as they flew across the Atlantic Ocean.[47]

On 12 October 2008, Tu-160 bombers were involved in the largest Russian strategic bomber exercise since 1984. A total of 12 bombers including Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95 Bear conducted a series of launches of their cruise missiles. Some bombers launched a full complement of their missiles. It was the first time that a Tu-160 had ever fired a full complement of missiles.[48]

Tu-160, No. 02 "Vasily Reshetnikov" at the Engels air base

On 10 June 2010, two Tu-160 bombers carried out a record-breaking 23-hour patrol with a planned flight range of 18,000 km (9,700 nmi). The bombers flew along the Russian borders and over neutral waters in the Arctic and Pacific Oceans.[49]

Russian media reports in August 2011 claimed that only four of the VVS' sixteen Tu-160 were flight worthy.[15] By mid-2012 Flight reported eleven were combat-ready[4] and between 2011 and 2013 eleven were photographed in flight.[50]

On 1 November 2013, Aleksandr Golovanov and Aleksandr Novikov went into Colombian airspace in two different occasions without receiving previous clearance from the Colombian Government. The aircraft was going from Venezuela to Nicaragua and headed for Managua. The Colombian Government issued a letter of protest to the Russian Government following the first violation. Two Colombian Air Force IAI Kfirs stationed at Barranquilla intercepted and escorted the two Blackjacks out of Colombian airspace after the second violation.[51][52][53]


  • Tu-160: Production version.
  • Tu-160S: designation used for serial Tu-160s when needed to separate them from all the pre-production and experimental aircraft.[54]
  • Tu-160V: proposed liquid hydrogen fueled version (see also Tu-155).[54]
  • Tu-160 NK-74: proposed upgraded (extended range) version with NK-74 engines.[54]
  • Tu-160M: upgraded version that features new weaponry, improved electronics and avionics, which double its combat effectiveness.[55] Will carry the hypersonic Kh-90 (3M25 Meteorit-A) missiles.
  • Tu-160P (Tu-161): proposed very long-range escort fighter/interceptor version.
  • Tu-160PP: proposed electronic warfare version carrying stand-off jamming and ECM gear (Russian: ПП – постановщик помех).
  • Tu-160R: proposed strategic reconnaissance version.
  • Tu-160SK: proposed commercial version, designed to launch satellites within the "Burlak" (Russian: Бурлак, "hauler") system.[54]


  • Russian Air Force - 16 were in service (12 combat and four in training) as of April 2008,[56] with the 121st Guards Heavy Bomber Regiment at Engels/Saratov.[57] As of 2015, 11 Tu-160s are combat-ready.[58][59]


 Soviet Union
184th Guards Heavy Bomber Regiment (TBAP), Pryluky, Ukrainian SSR

Specifications (Tu-160)

Orthographic projection of the Tupolev Tu-160

Data from Jane's All The World's Aircraft 2003–2004,[29]

General characteristics
  • Crew: 4 (pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, defensive systems operator)
  • Length: 54.10 m (177 ft 6 in)
  • Wingspan:
    • Spread (20° sweep): 55.70 m (189 ft 9 in)
    • Swept (65° sweep): 35.60 m (116 ft 9¾ in)
  • Height: 13.10 m (43 ft 0 in)
  • Wing area:
    • Spread: 400 m² (4,306 ft²)
    • Swept: 360 m² (3,875 ft²)
  • Empty weight: 110,000 kg (242,505 lb; operating empty weight)
  • Loaded weight: 267,600 kg (589,950 lb)
  • Max. takeoff weight: 275,000 kg (606,260 lb)
  • Powerplant: 4 × Samara NK-321 turbofans
    • Dry thrust: 137.3 kN (30,865 lbf) each
    • Thrust with afterburner: 245 kN (55,115 lbf) each


  • Maximum speed: Mach 2.05 (2,220 km/h, 1,200 knots, 1,380 mph) at 12,200 m (40,000 ft)
  • Cruise speed: Mach 0.9 (960 km/h, 518 knots, 596 mph)
  • Range: 12,300 km (7,643 mi) practical range without in-flight refuelling, Mach 0.77 and carrying 6 × Kh-55SM dropped at mid range and 5% fuel reserves[64]
  • Combat radius: 7,300 km[65] (3,994 nmi, 4,536 mi,) 2,000 km (1,080 nmi, 1,240 mi) at Mach 1.5[29]
  • Service ceiling: 15,006 m (49,235 ft)
  • Rate of climb: 70 m/s (13,860 ft/min)
  • Wing loading: 742 kg/m² with wings fully swept (152 lb/ft²)
  • lift-to-drag: 18.5–19, while supersonic it is above 6.[66]
  • Thrust/weight: 0.37
  • Two internal bays for 40,000 kg (88,185 lb) of ordnance including

See also

Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era
Related lists



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  • The Directory of the World's Weapons. Leicester, UK: Blitz Editions, 1996. ISBN 978-1-85605-348-8.
  • Eden, Paul (ed.). The Encyclopedia of Modern Military Aircraft. London: Amber Books, 2004.  
  • Jackson, Paul. Jane's All The World's Aircraft 2003–2004. Coulsdon, UK: Jane's Information Group, 2003. ISBN 0-7106-2537-5.
  • Taylor, Michael J. H. Brassey's World Aircraft & Systems Directory. London: Brassey's, 1996. ISBN 1-85753-198-1.

External links

  • Tu-160 page at
  • External link to Tu-160 airbase
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