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Tupolev Tu-160


On 28 November 1967 the Soviet government specified the requirements for a competition for a new strategic bomber. Technical parameters were high. The aircraft was to reach 11000 to 13000 km (5,970 to 7,020 nm) and have a cruising speed of 3200 to 3500 km/h. The maximum range at subsonic speed was to be 16000 to 18000 km (8,640 to 9,720 nm) at high altitude. Basic armament was to be nuclear missiles, including heavy Kh-45 and small Kh-2000s.

Tupolev, which was formally called Moscow Engineering Plant 'Opyt' (meaning Test), joined Sukhoi and Myasishchev in the quest for a supersonic strategic bomber. Unlike the others, Tupolev started designing by not aiming at the specifications given by the government. Tupolev thought a Mach 3.0 to 3.2 bomber, compared with a Mach 2.3, did not off-set the cost of construction and technology. In the early 1970s Tupolev prepared a series of flying-wing designs designated 160M, which were based on the contemporary delta-winged Tu-144 supersonic airliner.

In 1972 the air forces selected Sukhoi as the winner, however it was realised a design with these specifications was not possible. So it was decided to start a second stage of the competition. The maximum speed was lowered to Mach 2.3 enabling Tupolev's 160M flying-wing design to enter the competition. Myasishchev came with the M-18, based on the M-20 design which had a variable-geometry wing. Sukhoi gave up the competition and decided to concentrate on fighter aircraft.

The air force selected the M-18, because of its variable-geometry wing design and the design was supported by TsAGI (large and powerful Soviet technical research institute) and the Technological-Scientific Council of the Ministry of Air Industry. Tupolev's flying-wing design was a single-mode aircraft and the air force required bomber following a compound flight profile and be able to also land at 'smaller' airfield.

Myasishchev's winning design was developed by the Tupolev bureau, because the former's team was too small. In 1973 the first design for the Tu-160 was prepared by Tupolev based on the M-18 variable-geometry design. The design was gradually improved and Tupolev began selecting the aircraft systems, together with the scientific and government research institutes. The NK-25 engine of the Tu-22M3 were selected at first, but the high fuel consume rate required a new development. In 1980 the first Nk-32 was test flown on a Tu-142 and production began in 1983.

Aleksei Tupolev (son of Andrei Tupolev, founder of the design bureau) lead the Tu-160 design program during the initial period, in 1975 Valentin Bliznyuk was appointed as chief designer and remained in charge of the program. In 1977 the preliminary design and a full scale mock up were submitted for state committee acceptance. At this stage the aircraft would carry two Kh-45 missiles. During the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty II (SALT II) talks in the late 1970s, the plans for a new strategic bomber and the name Tu-160 were first revealed to the west.

The aircraft has a slender long blended wing-body design with a variable-geometry wing. The four NK-32 afterburning turbofans are arranged in pairs under the mid-wing each with variable-area intakes. The undercarriage consists of one front double-wheel leg and two six-wheel bogies (three tandem pairs), which are located between the engine pairs. Along the aircraft's centreline between the two gear units there are two weapon bays, which are divided by the wing carry-through structure.

The nose of the aircraft contains the Obzor-K (Survey) radar, which is used for both ground and air observation. It also contains another radar, the Sopka (Hill), which is used for terrain following when flying at low altitude. The upper center part in front of the windscreen contains the retractable inflight refuelling probe. Under the front fuselage there is a forward looking OPB-15T optical bombing sight and video. Behind the sight, there is the nose gear. The four man crew enters the cabin through the front gear bay. The pressurized cabin has four fighterjet-like K-36LM ejection seats. There are two control sticks for commander pilot (front left) and co-pilot (front right). The Tu-160 has a conventional flight deck, which is divided by a central console with the thrust and flap selection levers for the co-pilot. Behind the pilots there is the navigator/offensive weapons operator (left) and the navigator/electronic warfare and communications operator (right). Behind the crew there is corridor leading to a galley and a toilet.

The weapons carried in the weapon bays comprises of six (or a maximum of 12) Raduga Kh-55SM (NATO AS-15B 'Kent') cruise missiles, which are launched from two six-round MKU6-5U revolving launchers located in the forward area of each bay. The nuclear warhead loaded Kh-55SM is a development of the subsonic Kh-55 cruise missile. For guidance of the Kh-55SM the Tu-160 is equipped with the Sprut-SM (Octopus) navigation/attack system, which automatically aligns the coordination axes of both aircraft and weapons. It also generates a digital map of the terrain which is transferred from the aircraft to the missile before launch. Alternatively the Tu-160 can be equipped with up to 24 Raduga Kh-15 (NATO AS-16 'Kickback') short-range attack missiles (SRAM) or Kh-15P anti radiation missiles, which are both launched from up to four MKU6-1U revolving drums. However reportedly the Kh-15 capability has not been implemented on any production aircraft.

The variable-geometry wing has three positions. 20 degree sweep for landing, 35 degree for cruise and 65 degree sweep for high speed flight. The inner portion of the wing forms a vertical plane for directional stability when the wings are fully swept backwards. When the wing is swept forwards this portion lies flat to fill the gap between wing and fuselage and forms the most inner part of the flap.

The Tu-160 houses a Baykal self-defence systems of which most systems are located in the 'carrot' tail cone. These systems include a Mak (Poppy) infra-red missile launch sensor, radar warning receiver, electronic jammer and a battery of APP-50 chaff/flare dispensers. The underside of the tailcone houses the brake chutes. Directional control is provided by an all moving fin.


When the Soviets learned about the American AGM-86 ALCM-B cruise missile, the requirement of the Kh-45 as main armament for the Tu-160 was dropped and a strategic (nuclear) version of the Kh-55 cruise missile was developed. The Tu-160 armament would now consist of 12 Kh-55SM missiles, with 12 to 24 Kh-15 being the alternative. Although there was enough time to design the weapon bays after the plans for Kh-45 were dropped, the Tu-160 design held its long weapon bays. The Kh-55SM and Kh-15 are much shorter, and can be launched with only the forward longer doors openened (each weapon bay has four doors). Initially a traditional self-defence system was proposed for the Tu-160, including a tail turret with a 30mm GSg-6-30 cannon. However the designer replaced the plans later during developed with the Baykal system. Also the plans for R-77 medium-range air-to-air missiles were abondoned.

The program was accepted in 1977 and Tupolev began production of three prototypes. Although the aircraft were assembled at Tupolev's workshop at Moscow, the sub-assemblies were built at other production plants.

The first prototype 70-01 intended for flight testing the basic flight characteristics had incomplete equipment. Prototype 70-02 was built for static tests. Prototype 70-03 was practically an equivalent of series production aircraft. 70-01 was completed at Zhukovskity in January 1981. On 14 November, the aircraft taxied the airstrip for the first time, after months of testing. On 25 November 1981 a picture was taken of the aircraft near two Tu-144 by a US reconnaissance satellite, this was the first picture of the Tu-160 revealed to the world, at that time designated ‘RamP’.

On Friday 18 December 1981 Tu-160 70-01 made its maiden flight. Three months later the first supersonic flight was achieved. And during one of the test flight the top speed of 2200 km/h was reached. The 70-01 can be distinguished from the other Tu-160 by having a long probe at the nose tip. Internally there are greater differences in equipment and structural elements. Work on new materials and engineering methods, lead to postponement of the 70-03 prototype, which did not take off until 6 October 1984.

Although there are some differences between the first prototype, the development and the production aircraft, only one variant of the Tu-160 entered production. NATO codename for this variant is 'Blackjack-A'.




Series production was started at Ulyanovsk production plant, but was soon replaced to KAPO (Kazan Aviation Production Association) in favor of the An-124 production. The first series Tu-160 took off from Kazan on 10 October 1984. The first aircraft to enter service took off from Kazan on 15 August 1986.

On 23 April 1987 this aircraft as well as a second example were delivered to the 184th Heavy Bomber Regiment of Guards, based at Pryluky airfield in the Ukaine. The squadron had previously been operating the Tu-16 Badger, so it obtained a small number of Tu-22M3 'Backfire-C' to train the crew on high supersonic bombers, with a variable-geometry wing. Later the Tu-134UBL dedicated trainer for the Tu-160 replaced the Tu-22Ms. At the end of 1991, the 184th regiment had two squadron and a total of 19 Tu-160 were delivered.

The first time the Tu-160 was shown to the public was on 20 August 1989 flying over Tushino airfield in Moscow. The first ground presentation was in August 1992 at MosAeroshow held at Zhukovskiy. It made its international debut at the Paris Airshow in June 1995, were it was presented as space carrier for the Burlak space vehicle with a mock up of the Burlak under its belly.

After the break up of the Soviet Union the Ukainian parliament took all military units based in its country under control. At first this had no effect on the 184th bomber regiments. But in 1992 25% of the pilots and personnel swore oath to the Ukraine. At Engels airbase in Russia, the first Russian Tu-160 regiment was formed. Russia had just three Tu-160 remaining at the Kazan factory. On 16 February the first arrived at Engels AB, but because of lack of pilots it was not until 29 July 1992 when the first Tu-160 took off from Engels. The production at Kazan continued for a short while until the air force ran out of money and in June 1994 the sixth and last Tu-160 left the factory for Engels. Four unfinished airframes remained at Kazan.

The Ukrainian 19 Tu-160 from the 184th regiment were flown only a small number of sorties, before they were grounded because of lack of technical support from Tupolev and manufacturer, lack of spares and lack of fuel. Also the Ukraine did not have areas suitable for training with strategic missiles. The Ukraine could not sustain the aircraft and had no need for them, so they started negotiations with Russia in 1991. When in 1998 no agreement was reached, Ukraine decided to scrap the aircraft. The first Tu-160 was cut up in November 1998.

In April 1999, Russia proposed buying back eight Tu-160 and three Tu-95MS 'Bears' which were in the best technical condition, as well as 575 Kh-55 and Kh-55SM missiles, documentation and ground equipment. On 6 October 1999 an agreement was signed and a total of US$285 million was deducted from the Ukraine's outstanding payments to Russia for the supply of natural gas. On 5 November the first two bombers, a Tu-160 and a Tu-95MS, landed at Engels AB. The last two Tu-160 'Blackjacks' arrived at Engels on 21 February 2000. All the aircraft were overhauled at the Kazan factory during 2001. On 5 May 2000, another aircraft that was nearly finished aircraft was commissioned into service at Engels as '07'.

The 182nd Heavy Bomber Regiment of Guards operated 15 Tu-160 'Blackjacks' after all eight Ukrainian Tu-160 were returned into service. In September 2003 one Tu-160 bomber was lost in a fatal crash. Reportedly production restarted work on another one of the unfinished Tu-160 airframes at Kazan to replace the lost bomber. This is the second Tu-160 bomber to be lost in a crash, in 1987 the first Tu-160 (a series production test aircraft) crashed due to an engine problem.

The total number of Tu-160 Blackjacks built was 35 at the end of 2000, comprising of 3 prototypes built in Moscow and 32 series aircraft built in Kazan. Three unfinished aircraft remain at the Kazan factory today. Of the 11 Tu-160 airframes that remained in the Ukraine 1 serves as a gate monument, while the remaining 10 were cut up. The last Ukrainian Tu-160 was cut up in 2001.

The Russian Air Force was planning a limited upgrade for their Tu-160 fleet. First stage of the upgrade was to equip the aircraft with the conventional armed Kh-101 and Kh-555 cruise missiles and a new fire control system for these missiles, called Sigma. The Kh-101 uses a electro-optical terminal homing system and the Tu-160 will be able to carry up to 12 of these missiles. The Kh-555 is a reworked Kh-55SM with uses the Kh-101 homing system and replaces the nuclear warhead with a conventional one. Second stage of the upgrade was to include upgraded mission equipment and a new search-attack radar. Besides the Kh-101, this will enable the Tu-160 to be equipped with the Kh-102 strategic missile, medium range subsonic Kh-SD and a medium range supersonic weapon, presumable designated the Kh-41. Other upgraded system include navigation, communication and self-defence systems. The upgrade was to be carried out by KAPO at Kazan and would extend the service life of the Tu-160 until at least 2020-2025.





Production totals:

Prototype aircraft

Development/Test Russia

1987-1991 Delivered Pryluky, Ukraine

1991-2000 Delivered Engels, Russia

(Remaining at Kazan factory)

Total Aircraft Built




Tu-160 'Blackjack'
Engines: 4 x 245.18 kN (55,140 lb st) Trud/Samara NK-32 afterburning turbofans
Length 54.1m (177 ft 6 in)
Height 13.1m (42 ft 11 in)
Wing span 65 deg sweep 35.6m (116 ft 9.5 in)
Wing span 35 deg sweep 50.7m (166 ft 4 in)
Wing span 20 deg sweep 55.7m (182 ft 9 in)
Wing area: 360.0 sq.m (3875.00 sq ft)
Empty weight: 117000 kg (257,937 lb)
Max Take-Off Weight 275000 kg (606,261 lb)
Max level speed Mach 2.05 or 2200 km/h (1367 mph)
Max level speed at sea level 1030 km/h (640 mph)
Cruising speed: 917 km/h
Operational Ceiling 15600m (51,181 ft)
Maximum flight range without refuelling: 13950 km
Rate of climb: 4400 m/min.
Combat radius: 7300 km
Air refuel: Yes
Armament: up to 12 KH-55 nuclear or KH-555 conventional long-range cruise missiles or 24 Kh-15 short-range nuclear attack missiles in two internal weapon bays
Bombload: 22500kg
Crew: 4


Tupolev Tu-160




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