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Outside View: Blackjack flies again

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Ilya Kramnik
Moscow (UPI) Sep 30, 2008
Russia's Tupolev Tu-160 White Swan bombers are back from Venezuela. The overseas visit by the most powerful strike aircraft of Russia has created a new surge of interest in these planes, which make up the core of Russian strategic aviation.

The supersonic missile-carrying Tu-160 bomber -- NATO designation Blackjack -- was developed in the early 1970s, when it became clear that subsonic 3M and Tupolev Tu-95 bombers, which did not yet carry long-range cruise missiles, were unable to penetrate the air defenses of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in a conflict. The maiden flight of the new plane took place at the end of 1981.

From the outset, the Tupolev Tu-160 was designed as a missile-carrying bomber, which, with its high-altitude performance, would be less vulnerable when breaking through NATO's air defenses. Its serial production began in 1984, and in 1987 the first units joined the Russian air force. By 1991 the Soviet Union had 19 Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bombers in service, which belonged to the 184th Heavy Bomber Regiment at Priluki, Ukraine.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, Russia's new leadership decided to discontinue the production of Tupolev Tu-160s and Tupolev Tu-95MSs -- NATO designation Bear -- and also to stop regular flights by strategic aviation outside Russia's airspace. With completion of nearly ready aircraft, Russia's air force was found to have only six "White Swans," as pilots dubbed the Tupolev Tu-160. A few others were used as flying laboratories for all sorts of tests.

Ukraine, meanwhile, decided to disband its force of strategic bombers. It resolved to return eight Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjacks and three Tupolev Tu-95 Bears to Russia in exchange for gas debt.

In the early 2000s it was decided to upgrade existing Tupolev Tu-160s and finish the few planes in assembly jigs at the Kazan aircraft plant. In 2003 one of the Tupolev Tu-160s was lost in an air disaster -- as yet the only recorded loss in the service history of this plane.

In 2007 then Russian President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin decided to resume regular missions by strategic aviation to remote parts of the world. It was also decided to restart production of Tupolev Tu-160s and increase the air force complement to 30. All the new aircraft, as well as the upgrades, were to be equipped with improved NK-32 engines, which have long service intervals and thus increase the service life of a Tupolev Tu-160.

The bomber's armaments include Kh-55 nuclear-tipped long-range cruise missiles. For tactical purposes, it also can carry missiles in non-nuclear configuration, smart bombs, bomb clusters and other weapons.

The Tupolev Tu-160 is the world's largest combat plane -- its maximum takeoff weight is 275 tons. At the same time, it has a high speed -- 1,350 miles per hour, which is 420 miles per hour more than the American B-1B supersonic bomber -- and much lower visibility. Its range without refueling is 3,600 miles, which, in case it uses long-range cruise missiles, enables it to engage targets 4,200 to 4,800 miles away from base.

The Tupolev Tu-160 White Swan/Blackjack's characteristics and its upgrade potential make it the world's best strategic bomber, better than the B-2 Stealth bomber, which is second to the Tupolev Tu-160 in speed, payload, range and combat flexibility.

(Ilya Kramnik is a military commentator for RIA Novosti. This article is reprinted by permission of RIA Novosti. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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