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Russia has resumed production of its most advanced Tu-160 strategic bomber (NATO designation Blackjack). The first newly built aircraft of this type, which was already in use in Soviet times, made its maiden flight from the Kazan Air Company's airfield, 600 km east of Moscow. The plane was in the air at an altitude of 600 m for about half an hour. The machine is not just a replica of the old Blackjacks, but according to official information it is a completely modernized version, which bears the name Tu-160M.

The Tu-160 was designed as a supersonic bomber with variable sweep wings to carry strategic missiles and was developed at the Tupolev Design Bureau in the 1970s and 1980s. It is designed to destroy targets deep behind enemy lines using both nuclear and conventional weapons. The bomber can take twelve cruise missiles on board. All weapons are housed in the hull.

It is said that the production facilities in Kazan were extensively modernized for the new construction of the machine. According to Denis Manturov, the Russian Minister of Industry and Trade, the modernization plan also included the renewal of workshop equipment. According to him, "the world's largest system for electron beam welding and vacuum annealing of titanium" was put into operation for this purpose. The entire aircraft production was therefore completely digitized.

According to United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) CEO Yury Slyusar, the plant has been modernized by about 50 percent. This made it possible to update 80 percent of the Tu-160M's systems and equipment.

Die Rückkehr des russischen Blackjack-Bombers
The old-new blackjack bomber, Courtesy: MoD Russia

The Tu-160M ​​upgrade package includes modern avionics, including control equipment, a strap-down inertial navigation system, electronic warfare equipment, fuel and flow measurement systems, and weapon control systems. The aircraft also received new NK-32-02 engines. These will be manufactured under two long-term contracts signed in 2021 between UAC and United Engines Corporation (UEC). The installation of the new engines is said to have increased the aircraft's range by 1,000 km.

Die Rückkehr des russischen Blackjack-Bombers

The current fleet of Tu-160 aircraft, nicknamed the "White Swans" in Russia, consists of only 17 aircraft. In 2017 Yuri Borisov, then Deputy Defense Minister and now Deputy Prime Minister, announced plans to purchase about 50 modernized Tu-160 bombers with an annual production of three to four aircraft from 2021. However, the program appears to be behind schedule. So far, in January 2018, the official state order for only ten new Tu-160M ​​worth 160 billion rubles was signed. The estimated unit cost of each upgraded blackjack is around $270 million.

Russian experts assume that in the future the Tu-160 will be armed with long-range air-to-surface missiles, including hypersonic missiles. The Tu-160s were tested during the Russian operation in Syria to destroy facilities remotely. It looks like the white swans will also become native to the Russian Arctic in the future.

Yuri Laskin