World’s Most Powerful Combat Aircraft Jet Engine Is Back In Production For Russia’s New Bombers
A Tu-160 has flown with a new version of the NK-32 engine, which is critical to the bomber’s production restart.
A Tupolev Tu-160M Blackjack swing-wing strategic bomber took to the air yesterday with a new engine. This marks a major development in Russia’s ongoing program to relaunch production of the Cold War-era missile-carrier. Since no photos of the re-engined bomber have so far been released, it’s not yet possible to determine the identity of the particular Blackjack, or whether all four of the turbofans are already installed.
The United Aircraft Corporation, which now has manufacturing responsibility for the Blackjack, announced that the “deeply modernized” Tu-160M had performed its first flight with its new serial-production NK-32-02 engines at the Kazan Aircraft Production Association airfield in southwest Russia on November 3, 2020. The flight lasted 2 hours and 20 minutes and saw the bomber climb to a height of over 19,000 feet, with the crew led by test pilot Anri Naskidyants.
Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti reported that the flight went smoothly, adding that the aircraft “was equipped with new flight and navigation equipment, an onboard communications system, modernized control system, radar, and electronic countermeasures system.”
Lack of engines had been a serious hurdle in Moscow’s ambitious plans to restart production of the Blackjack, which had originally come to a halt in 1994 after just 36 examples - three of them non-flying static test airframes - had been completed. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, 10 of the Tu-160s left in Ukrainian territory were scrapped. Another four of the bombers were left unfinished on the assembly line and two of these were eventually completed in 1999 and 2007. Today, the Russian Aerospace Forces fleet is thought to include around 17 Blackjacks, which have performed a number of high-profile long-range missions in recent years, as well as regular “patrol” flights close to NATO’s borders.
Then, in April 2015, Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu announced that production of the Tu-160 was to be resumed. Ahead of this, the Kuznetsov company in Russia’s southwestern city of Samara received a contract to restart production of the Blackjack’s NK-32 turbofans, now producing an improved NK-32-02 version. The first of these engines was planned to be ready for tests in 2016 and some observers have expected that the same powerplant to be used in Russia’s still-secretive and still-unseen PAK DA new-generation bomber. As well as powering new-build Blackjacks, the NK-32-02 is required to keep Tu-160s from the original production run operational.
The Kuznetsov NK-32, as installed in the original Tu-160, is widely reported as the most powerful combat aircraft engine in the world, developing over 55,000 pounds of thrust at full afterburner.
While the NK-32-02 is considered a “new” engine, it actually dates back to the mid-1980s, when the Soviet Union canceled its production on cost grounds. The improvements over the initial design included new blades for the compressor and turbine, plus more efficient cooling.
The NK-32-02 is understood to have the same output as the original powerplant but offers increased efficiency, extending the bomber’s range by around 1,000 kilometers, or just over 620 miles, according to Russian media reports. Tupolev has in the past claimed a 13 percent overall range increase.
The program to get the Blackjack back into production has been a protracted one, perhaps not altogether surprisingly, as the effort to reinstate a production line and setup required tooling after decades of inactivity is considerable. In January 2018, the Russian Ministry of Defense signed a contract for the next 10 new-build Blackjacks, which cost around $270 million per copy. Plans called for a first example for the Russian Aerospace Forces to be rolled out in 2021; according to RIA Novosti, this schedule is still on track.
In the past, the Russian Aerospace Forces have declared a requirement for at least 50 new-build Tu-160M aircraft.
In parallel with the new-production Blackjacks, Russia has been busy with a mid-life upgrade program for its existing Tu-160s, including new mission systems and avionics. Originally, the existing bombers were to be designated Tu-160M after completing their upgrade, while the new-build aircraft would be designated Tu-160M2. This has now been rationalized, and both variants are now known as Tu-160Ms.
Therefore, the first aircraft to be re-engined with the new NK-32-02 turbofans is not a new-build Blackjack, but either an example from the earlier production batch that has been brought up to Tu-160M status or a prototype for the new-build aircraft constructed using one of the two incomplete airframes from the original production run.
One of these two unfinished aircraft has been completed as a Tu-160M, perhaps to serve as a proof-of-concept for the new-build bombers. This aircraft was rolled out in November 2017 and began flight trials in January 2018. It is named Petr Deyneken after the former Russian Air Force chief.
Meanwhile, a first “deeply modernized” Tu-160M based on an aircraft from the original production series — named Igor Sikorsky — performed its maiden flight at Kazan in February 2020. The aircraft was originally built in February 1989 and was one of eight Blackjacks purchased by Russia from Ukraine in 1999, after the fleet had been left there following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The full Tu-160M configuration includes a new Novella radar as well as a new self-defense suite and electronic surveillance system. The flight deck is now equipped with a 'glass cockpit' and the revised avionics encompass the communication suite, flight control system, and navigation suite.
Alongside the “deeply modernized” Tu-160M, Russia has also been performing a less-extensive upgrade on its Blackjack fleet, at a rate of one or two aircraft per year. This is the so-called “small modernization,” or Tu-160M1, and provides a digital upgrade for the aircraft’s inertial navigation and engine control systems, as well as armament.
Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov has said the Russian Aerospace Forces will continue to operate modernized Tu-160Ms (both upgraded and new-build examples) “until the 2050s or even the 2060s.”
The elusive PAK DA
Considering the Blackjack can now deploy conventional weapons, as well as nuclear ones, and have been combat-proven in the Syrian campaign, it’s unsurprising that Russia wants to get the most out of its supersonic strategic bombers.
On the other hand, the continued focus on the Blackjack — including the tricky task of bringing it back into production — should be seen against the prospects for the future PAK DA, which stands for Perspektivnyi Aviatsionnyi Kompleks Dalney Aviatsii, or Future Air Complex of Long-Range Aviation.
The research and development program for the PAK DA began around 2009, before the order to resume Tu-160 production. That suggests that difficulties faced by the PAK DA program led to the new bomber program’s priority being reduced in favor of the tried and tested Blackjack.
To this day, there has been no official concept art of the PAK DA, so we really have no idea what the design looks like. However, most observers expect that it will be a subsonic “flying wing” design, possibly with low-observable (stealthy) features.
Tupolev’s concept for the PAK DA was apparently approved in 2013, after which the United Aircraft Corporation received a follow-on contract for detailed design work and other contracts to develop the aircraft’s systems. The then commander of Russia’s Long-Range Aviation branch, Anatoly Zhikharev, said in late 2014 that a PAK DA prototype would fly in 2019.
In 2015, however, the idea of resuming series production of the Tu-160 appeared and with this, the urgency assigned to the PAK DA seems to have diminished. Indeed, speaking in 2018, Deputy Prime Minister Borisov described that relaunching production of the Blackjack was “a less risky path” than the PAK DA. “At the same time, we have postponed the PAK DA, to gain experience and restore technology”, he added. Borisov’s predecessor, Dmitry Rogozin, had the same year said that the PAK DA would perform its first flight in 2023 or 2024.
The prospects of the PAK DA taking to the air in that kind of timeframe seem remote, especially as the focus is now on the Tu-160’s continued upgrade and production restart, which will consume both funding and production capacity at the Kazan plant. Meanwhile, similar upgrade programs for the Tu-22M3 Backfire and Tu-95MS Bear strategic bombers further reduce the urgency of getting the PAK DA into service.
There is also the enormous cost involved in getting a sophisticated “clean-sheet” design into production and service in meaningful numbers. Moscow’s planned purchases of Sukhoi Su-57 new-generation fighters currently stand at just 76 and other expensive weapons programs have been abandoned altogether.
While the PAK DA looks like it will have to wait in the wings sometime longer, the “new” Tu-160 will, at least, provide the Russian Aerospace Forces with a very capable stopgap.
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