A Brief History
On December 18, 1981, the Soviet Union put into flight the largest combat airplane ever made, the Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack heavy bomber. The Blackjack (which the NATO name, Russians call it White Swan) is also the largest Mach 2 supersonic airplane to ever fly, and is the largest variable swept wing airplane to fly. It remains the longest and heaviest bomber ever built, with a length 18 feet more than a B-52. Although built only in small numbers, the development of this giant, fast bomber stoked panic in Western democracies during the Cold War and provided fuel to President Reagan’s warnings about Soviet military power.
Weighing in at a massive 110,000 kilos empty, the Blackjack outweighs the B-52 by a whopping 26,750 kilos. With a top speed of Mach 2.05 and a combat radius of nearly 4000 miles (more with aerial refueling), the Backfire was certainly capable of delivering its maximum payload of 40,000 kilos (which compared to US bombers, more than a B-52 and nearly double that of a B-2, similar to the payload of a B-1) virtually anywhere in the world. Capable of carrying conventional bombs, nuclear free-fall bombs, and short range nuclear missiles, its main intended payload, the Tu-160 posed quite a threat except for one important factor: The Soviets only built 27 operational bombers.
Powered by 4 massive turbofan engines, the most powerful ever installed on a combat aircraft (with afterburning capable of over 55,000 pounds of thrust each), the Tu-160 looks similar to its predecessor, the Tu-22M Backfire, of which 497 were built and 100+ are still in use, but the Tu-160 is much larger. Operational since 1987, the Blackjack fleet is still in service and has been undergoing modernization since 2005 to keep the planes in operational condition. In a post-Cold War arms race spurred by strained relations between Russia and the United States (and NATO), Russia has arranged the purchase of an additional 50 Tu-160’s to be built brand new, incorporating modernization aspects. The first of these new model Tu-160M2 variants was unveiled in November of 2017.
Like other modern bombers, the Tu-160 does not rely on guns for defensive purposes, but rather on its great speed and electronic counter-measures. The Tu-160 is not a “stealth” aircraft, but it does have certain stealthy characteristics compared to earlier generation bombers such as the B-52. It is believed to have a reasonable penetration capability to deliver its weapons.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union (or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) in 1991 has ended the original Cold War but as noted above, tensions between Russia and the West threaten to ignite a new Cold War and arms race, costing taxpayers in both camps ludicrous sums of money for hyper-expensive weapons. The Tu-160M2 is one of those weapons systems, although we could not find an accurate estimate of the cost of each plane. A 2015 estimate of unit cost was $160 million per plane, a price certain to go up as these things do, but still much less than the US pays for a single B-2 Spirit stealth bomber (about $737 million each!).
Question for students (and subscribers): Should Russia, the United States/NATO and China be spending such vast sums on high technology weapons? Please give us your thoughts on military spending and on which weapons systems you believe are worth the investment in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Gordon, Yefim. Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack: Russia’s Answer to the B-1, Vol. 9 (Red Star). Midland Publishing, 2003.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Alex Beltyukov of Tupolev Tu-160 Aleksandr Novikov in flight over Russia, May 2014, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.