By Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace
Russian tactical aviation is benefitting from the delivery of now reasonable numbers of combat aircraft, but its strategic air arm, by comparison, still has to make do with a trickle of upgraded bombers and an ageing type at the heart of its fleet.
While the air force is receiving new-build variants of the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker in the shape of the Su-35 fighter and Su-34 strike aircraft, and has five prototypes of a fifth-generation combat aircraft in flight test, strategic aviation has received so far only a handful of upgraded Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95MS Bear long-range bombers. The Military Balance 2014 lists the air force as having 16 Tu-160 and 62 Tu-95s.
A new bomber, the PAK DA, is in the early stages of development, with a low-observable subsonic design favoured. However, sustaining the finance and the industrial base necessary to bring the project to fruition will prove a challenge. A first flight has been suggested by 2017–20, with the type entering service in the middle of the 2020s, but this timetable appears optimistic at best. PAK DA is intended to replace the Bear and Blackjack and also some of the roles presently met by the Tu-22M3 Backfire. The air force is aiming to replace all three types by 2030.
Bomber aviation has always been the least supported of the strategic triad. Efforts to design a new strike aircraft in the 1980s, the Sukhoi T-60S, came to naught as the economy collapsed during the 1990s. This type would have subsumed roles undertaken by the Tu-22M.
The PAK DA programme, led by Tupolev, is being given greater political support. At a meeting in November 2013 to discuss air-force programmes and strengthening nuclear airborne forces, President Vladimir Putin said ‘We need to step up work on the new prospective air complex for long-range aviation PAK DA ... we must start working on the PAK DA and do that actively’.
In the near-term, strategic aviation is being bolstered with the provision of upgraded and, more recently, new cruise missiles. The Kh-555 is a conventionally armed derivative of the Raduga Kh-55 (AS-15 Kent) nuclear cruise-missile, while the Kh-101/Kh-102 family provides conventional- and nuclear-armed low-observable cruise missiles. The Kh-101 has been seen carried externally on the Bear for test purposes. So far no imagery has become public of the missile being carried internally on the Blackjack, but this testing is likely either underway or complete.
Development of the Kh-101/102 began in the early-to-mid 1980s, but technical and funding issues significantly slowed its progress. Early design aims to fit the cruise missile with an unducted turbofan, which offers reduced fuel consumption in comparison to a traditional turbojet or turbofan, proved overly ambitious and were dropped in favour of a more conservative propulsion approach. Unducted fan engine technology would have helped to meet the air force's original range ambitions for the weapon, which may have been curtailed.
The Tu-22M3 aircraft is also earmarked for a limited avionics upgrade, while an improved variant of the Raduga Kh-22 anti-ship missile (AS-4 Kitchen), the Kh-32, has been seen during the course of 2013 being carried as part of a trials programme from the Zhukovsky flight test centre near Moscow.