Recently, Russian military analysts raised concerns regarding the status of the nation’s nuclear triad. Specifically, apprehensions were voiced about the extent of modernization, with significant portions believed to be either entirely upgraded or only partially so. The focus of attention was on the long-range aviation fleet, the last component of the triad slated for considerable updates.
Simultaneously, a pivotal event unfolded thousands of miles away in the United States last December. The American populace witnessed the debut of the advanced prototype B-21 Ryder bomber, featuring stealth technology. While sharing conceptual similarities with its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit, the B-21’s unveiling was noteworthy in light of the U.S. plans for its extensive production.
Critics argue that a comprehensive revamp of the U.S. strategic air fleet could render the Russian counter outdated. However, Russian long-range aviation is currently undergoing a significant transformation. This year marks a new era as Moscow prepares to welcome four fully overhauled “White Swans,” the Tu-160 bomber, providing a substantial boost to their existing fleet. While impressive, a more in-depth examination of the details is warranted.
The focus of this analysis shifts to the state-of-the-art Tu-160M2s, developed approximately half a decade ago. The first pair of these bombers, produced by the Kazan Aviation Plant, has undergone extensive work over these years. This includes the replacement of equipment, recruitment of specialized personnel, and the revival of lost technologies, essentially starting from scratch. Notably, the project was successfully concluded much earlier than initially projected.
In a flashback to 2015, the Russian Ministry of Defense declared the initiation of production for these bombers not before 2023, causing surprise and shock among some observers. However, fast-forwarding to 2023, Russia welcomed its inaugural pair of new Tu-160M2s, a development recently confirmed by high-ranking officials from the Kremlin.
The second pair of “White Swans” represents a highly advanced iteration, achieved through the upgrading of the existing bomber fleet. In essence, the Tu-160s were enhanced to rival the Tu-160M through significant improvements rather than being developed from the ground up. Consequently, both variants share essential similarities, with their novelty in housing being the distinguishing factor.
Turning our attention to weaponry, it’s crucial to temper expectations regarding drastic alterations. The Tu-160M/M2 retains two compartments, each accommodating 6 types of ammunition. Notably, the Kh-101 and its nuclear counterpart, the Kh-102, are likely popular choices due to their impressive missile attributes and extensive production.
These weapons incorporate stealth technology and a system designed to penetrate air and missile defenses using an RAB station. Additionally, they feature a toolkit for diverting enemy missiles away from their primary target, establishing a comprehensive arsenal.
Regarding the Kh-50 in the belly of the Tu-160M2, while details about new innovations are not fully known, this piece of arsenal, also known as Kh-MD, is of significant interest. Smaller than its counterpart, the Kh-101, the Kh-50 boasts a more limited flight range (between 1500 to 3000 km), enhancing its potential to evade enemy radar detection. Importantly, its cost-effectiveness allows for deployment in bulk, making it suitable for various local disputes.
A noteworthy focus in the Tu-160M/M2 modernization program is the incorporation of hypersonic missiles. This initiative integrates these high-speed missiles into the armaments of the renowned “White Swans,” a strategic move acknowledged by military experts.
The Kinzhal missile, commonly referred to as the “Dagger,” distinguishes itself with an impressive success rate. The choice of the Tu-160 over other aircraft platforms warrants examination. Consider the MiG-31K, which carries a single missile, in contrast to the upgraded Lebed capable of accommodating up to 8. This substantial difference becomes even more apparent when envisioning the capabilities of four Tu-160s launching a total of 32 “daggers.”
In practical terms, assembling a fleet of MiG-31 fighters modified for hypersonic operations to match this volume appears doubtful. However, plans are underway to build up to 50 Tu-160 “Swans.” Theoretically, this could translate into a formidable arsenal of 500-600 missiles, emphasizing the strategic advantage of the Tu-160 platform in terms of payload and operational capacity.