TU-160: 25 years in air

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This week, servicemen and veterans of long-distance aviation of the Russian Air Force mark several memorable dates. On December 23, long-distance aviation will turn 92 years old. The world’s first squadron of four-engine heavy bombers Ilya Muromets of designer Igor Sikorsky was formed on that day. Thus appeared Russian strategic aviation.

Long-distance aviation is the aviation component of the forces with assistance of which Russia pursues a nuclear deterrence policy. Unlike the Strategic Missile Forces and maritime strategic nuclear forces, aviation has an advantage: it is reusable, can return and possesses concealment. Nobody knows where and at which target an airplane that has taken off an airfield will launch a cruise missile.

Lately, long-distance aviation has received new tasks of “non-nuclear deterrence.” Of the entire triad of the strategic nuclear forces only long-distance aviation can fulfill such tasks. This is combating international terrorism that is already trying to counteract entire countries. That is why long-distance aviation is prepared to deliver forestalling and pinpoint blows on militants. For example, Tu-22M3 that can carry all types of air bombs has this capability due to its characteristics. New precision-guided weapons have also appeared that can kill practically any targets.

During the military exercises of long-distance aviation in September 2005, Russian strategic missile-carrying airplanes performed long-distance raids in the Arctic Ocean, near the coast of Alaska and in the Pacific Ocean for the first time in the last 15 years. Then Russian bombers made radar stations of the US and NATO worry. In the area of Alaska US fighters even accompanied the Russian airplanes at much distance for some time.

At present, long-distance aviation operates strategic bombers Tu-150, Tu-95MS and Tu-22M3. The missile-carrying airplane Tu-95MS was developed 50 years ago. It is the only strategic bomber in the world equipped with turboprop engines. The Tu-22M3 airplanes are a part of naval long-distance aviation.

Tu-160 missile-carrying airplane is the main airplane of long-distance aviation. On December 18, long-distance aviation marked the 25th jubilee of the maiden flight of this most powerful bomber in the world. Twenty-five years ago, the airplane was piloted by the crew of test pilots of Tupolev design bureau. After three years of improvements series production of the airplane began at the Kazan aircraft building plant. The first series-produced airplane took off on October 10, 1984. The production program made provisions for production of about 100 airplanes but reduction of financing at the end of the 1980s and breakup of the USSR, resulted in stopping production of Tu-160. About 30 airplanes were built by the beginning of the 1990s.

The first two-series produced airplanes were supplied to the 184th aviation regiment of the 201st aviation division (Priluki) in April 1987. Their experimental operation was done both by regular pilots and by test pilots of the Kazan aircraft production association (KAPO). Two squadrons of the 184th aviation regiment were armed with the new missile-carrying airplanes later.

The maiden flight of the Tu-160 with imitation of combat use took place in August 1987. The first public demonstration of the airplane happened in August 1988. The airplane was demonstrated to US Secretary of Defense F. Carlucci.

After breakup of the USSR all strategic missile-carrying airplanes Tu-160 were united into the 121st aviation regiment in Engels. Nineteen airplanes remained on the territory of independent Ukraine. For Ukrainians the airplanes were one of the attributes of national independence and sovereignty because not every country could afford having strategic aviation.

At any rate, very soon it was found out that bombers were too expensive and unnecessary toys. For flight to the maximum range one Tu-160 needs 170 tons of jet fuel and for a training flight above the national territory it needs 40 tons. Besides, the sky of Ukraine was too small for Tu-160. Due to permanent shortage of fuel the airplanes did not fly more than five times a year. Strategic bombers absolutely did not feed the defensive doctrine of non-nuclear Ukraine. Maintenance of even mothballed Tu-160 was too expensive and unnecessary. Very soon officials in Kyiv started considering getting rid of the Tu-150. It was possible to relocate the airplanes to Russia (Kazakhstan acted in this way in the past, exchanging long-range bombers Tu-95MS for fighters) or to destroy.

Negotiations on purchase of the airplanes by Russia failed. The National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine decided to liquidate strategic bombers Tu-95MS and Tu-160. In 1998, Ukraine started destroying the strategic bombers on money allocated by the US, under the Nann-Lugar program. Until the end of 1998, Ukraine scrapped two Tu-160 and scrapping of each airplane cost $1 million. It was planned to fully liquidate the Ukrainian Tu-160 by 2001.

On December 5, 1998, the Defense Ministry of Ukraine and US Department of Defense signed an agreement on liquidation of 44 heavy bombers and 1,068 airborne cruise missiles KH-55 (it was planned to destroy 19 Tu-160 airplanes in the framework of the international treaty START-1). In early August 1999, an agreement was achieved on reassigning eight heavy bombers Tu-160 in good repair by Ukraine over to Russia in the framework of partial repayment of the debt for natural gas supplies. Reassigning the members to Russia started in November 1999. By April 2000, all airplanes flew to the airfield near Engels.

According to Lieutenant General Igor Khvorov, commander of long-distance aviation, the quantity of strategic missile-carrying airplanes will not be increased in the near future.

Khvorov explains: “The quantity of available airplanes is quite sufficient for parrying existing threats.” According to the commander, heavy airplanes have always been built with a prospect of long term of use and for 30 years more the Tu-160 will comply with all necessary requirements. Further development of long-distance aviation will go along the path of modernization of electronic equipment of the already existing airplanes.

Valentin Bliznyuk, chief designer of airplanes of this type, comments, “There is potential for production of Tu-160 in Russian industry. There are three Tu-160 airplanes more at the Kazan aircraft building plant at various stages of readiness and if necessary it will be possible to use the airplanes that are passing tests.”

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