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Tupolev TU-160 – “White Swans” Visit South Africa

South African aviation enthusiasts were treated a very rare sighting last week, two Russian Tupolev TU-160 “Blackjack” strategic nuclear bombers visited AFB Waterkloof and OR Tambo international airport. These massive machines, that hail from the height of the “Cold War”, were accompanied by an Antonov AN 124 and an Ilyushin Il-62. The friendly visit to South Africa as part of strengthening ties between the two nations had many people wondering if there was a more sinister motive behind their visit.

The delegation was received by the SAAF’s deputy chief, Major General Innocent Buthelezi and Brigadier General JCJ Butler (Director Combat Systems). Gen Buthelezi said at their arrival on Wednesday “it is a privilege to host the Russian aircraft especially as it is the first time such bombers have landed in Africa”. He added the visit was part of military-to-military cooperation between Russia and South Africa and looked forward to strengthening relations between the two defence forces.

The flight to South Africa was a 13 hours non-stop flight over the Caspian Sea, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, covering 11,000 km distance with mid-air refuelling over the Caspian Sea, this was the Tu-160's first ever visit to the African continent. The TU-160’s were intercepted in the Richards Bay area by Gripens and Hawks from the South African Airforce and they accompanied them all the way to AFB Waterkloof.

Initially the landing of the very seldom seen aircraft was delayed by 24 hours due to inclement weather at their point of departure, Engels-2 Air Base, in South Eastern Russia. Engels-2 Air Base is a strategic bomber military airbase in Russia located 14 kilometres east of Saratov. Engels is a major bomber operation base and is Russia's sole operating location for the Tupolev Tu-160 bomber. After a further delay the majestic machines finally appeared over the wall at Waterkloof at 16:25 on Tuesday afternoon, almost thirty four hours later than expected.

The Tupolev TU-160 was the Russian response to the USA’s B-1A bomber project and was released to the public for the first time in December 1981. Many critics claim the TU-160 was a “crib” of the B-1A but this is highly unlikely as the TU-160 incorporated many design features from Tupolev Tu-144, the world’s first commercial supersonic transport aircraft and the TU-160 was only flown years after the cancellation of the B-1A project.

Tupolev Tu-144

The Tu-160 is a variable-geometry wing aircraft that employs a fly-by-wire control system with a blended wing profile, and full-span slats are used on the leading edges, with double-slotted flaps on the trailing edges and cruciform tail. The Tu-160 has a crew of four, the pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, and defensive systems operator each in their individual K-36LM ejection seats, where as the B-1A was equipped with an escape pod that would be jettisoned in an emergency.

The Tu-160 is powered by four Kuznetsov NK-32 afterburning turbofan engines, the most powerful ever fitted to a combat aircraft. Unlike the American B-1B Lancer, which reduced the original Mach 2+ requirement for the B-1A to achieve a smaller radar cross-section, the Tu-160 retains variable intake ramps, and is capable of reaching Mach 2.05 speed at altitude. The Tu-160 is equipped with a probe-and-drogue in-flight refuelling system for extended-range missions, although it is rarely used. The Tu-160's internal fuel capacity of 130 tons gives the aircraft a roughly 15-hour flight endurance at a cruise speed of around 530 mph, Mach 0.77, at 30,000 ft.

The aircraft carries a TsNPO Leninets Obzor-K radar for tracking ground and air targets, and a separate Sopka Terrain-following radar. Although the Tu-160 was designed for reduced detectability to both radar and infrared signature, it is not a stealth aircraft. Nevertheless, Lt. Gen. Igor Khvorov claimed that Tu-160s managed to penetrate the US sector of the Arctic undetected on 25 April 2006, leading to a USAF investigation according to a Russian source.

Weapons are carried in two internal bays, each capable of holding 44,000 lb of free-fall weapons or a rotary launcher for nuclear missiles; additional missiles may also be carried externally. The aircraft's total weapons load capacity is 88,000 lb. No defensive weapons are provided; the Tu-160 is the first post-World War II Soviet bomber to lack such defences.

A demilitarized, commercial version of the Tu-160, named Tu-160SK, was displayed at Asian Aerospace in Singapore in 1994 with a model of a small space vehicle named Burlak attached underneath the fuselage.

In April 1987, the Tu-160 entered operational service with the 184th Guards Heavy Bomber Regiment located at Pryluky, Ukrainian SSR. The regiment previously operating Tu-16 and Tu-22M3 strategic bombers became the first unit that received the Tu-160. Squadron deployments to Long Range Aviation began that month, prior to the Tu-160's first public appearance in a parade in 1989. In 1989 and 1990, a total of 44 world speed flight records in its weight class were set. In 1992, Russia unilaterally suspended its flights of strategic aviation in remote regions.

Tu-16 Tu-22M3

A total of 19 Tu-160's were stationed inside the newly-independent Ukraine during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. On 25 August 1991, the Ukrainian parliament decreed that the new nation would take control of all military units on its territory; a Defence Ministry was created that same day. By the mid-1990s, the Pryluky regiment had lost its value as a combat unit; 19 Tu-160s were effectively grounded due to a lack of technical support and spare parts. Ukraine considered the Tu-160s to be a bargaining chip in economic negotiations with Russia and of limited value from a military standpoint. Discussions over the Tu-160s were lengthy due to price disagreements. While Russian experts, who examined the aircraft at the Pryluky Air Base in 1993 and 1996, assessed their technical condition as good, the $3 billion price proposed by Ukraine was considered by Russians as unacceptable. In April 1998, due to the stalled negotiations, Ukraine decided to commence scrapping the aircraft under the Nunn–Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Agreement. In November, the first Tu-160 was deconstructed at Pryluky.

In April 1999, immediately after NATO's air campaign against Serbia, Russia resumed talks with Ukraine about strategic bombers, proposing to purchase eight Tu-160s and three Tu-95MSs manufactured in 1991 (those in the best technical condition), as well as 575 Kh-55MS missiles. An agreement was reached and a $285 million contract was signed, the value of which was deducted from Ukraine's debt for natural gas. On 20 October 1999, a group of Russian military experts went to Ukraine to prepare the aircraft for the flight to Engels-2 air base. The first two aircraft (a Tu-160 and a Tu-95MS) departed Pryluky on 5 November. During the following months, seven other Tu-160s flew to Engels-2, with the last two arriving on 21 February 2001.

Tu-160's Pryluky in the Ukraine

Along with the purchase of Ukrainian aircraft, Russia sought other ways of rebuilding the fleet at Engels-2 Air Base. In June 1999, the Russian Defence Ministry signed a contract with the Kazan Aircraft Production Association for a delivery of a single, almost complete bomber. The aircraft was the second aircraft in the eighth production batch and it arrived at Engels on 10 September. It was commissioned into service on 5 May 2000. The unit operating the fleet from Engels-2 was the 121st Guards Heavy Bomber Regiment which was formed up in early 1992 and received 6 aircraft by 1994. By the end of February 2001, the fleet stood at 15 with the addition of the eight aircraft from Ukraine and the new-build. As of 2001, six additional Tu-160s served as experimental aircraft at Zhukovski, with four remaining airworthy.

The Russia's Air Force fleet was reduced to 14 due to the crash of the Mikhail Gromov during flight trials of a replacement engine on 18 September 2003. It was brought up to 16 aircraft in June 2006 by the completion of a part-built Tu-160, named Vitaly Kopylov, and its delivery on 29 April 2008. After avionics upgrades were completed, the Tu-160 formally entered service with the Russian Air Force by a presidential decree on 30 December 2005.

On 17 August 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was resuming the strategic aviation flights stopped in 1991, sending its bombers on long-range patrols. On 14 September 2007, British and Norwegian fighters intercepted two Tu-160s in international airspace near the United Kingdom and Finland. On 25 December 2007, two Tu-160s came close to Danish airspace and two Danish Air Force F-16s scrambled to intercept and identify them.

On 11 September 2007, according to Russian government sources, a Tu-160 deployed a massive fuel-air explosive device, called Father of All Bombs, for its first field test. Some military analysts expressed scepticism that the weapon was actually delivered by a Tu-160.

On 28 December 2007, the first flight of a new Tu-160 took place following its completion at the Kazan Aviation Plant. After flight testing, the bomber joined the Russian Air Force on 29 April 2008, increasing the total number of aircraft in service to 16. In 2008, the Russian military planned that one new Tu-160 would be delivered every one to two years until the active inventory would reach 30 or more aircraft by 2025–2030.

On 10 September 2008, two Tu-160s landed in Venezuela as part of military manoeuvres, announcing an unprecedented deployment to Russia's ally at a time of increasingly tense relations between Russia and the United States. The Russian Defence Ministry said Vasily Senko and Aleksandr Molodchiy were on a training mission. In a statement carried by Russian news agencies, it was reported that the aircraft would conduct training flights over neutral waters before returning to Russia. The aircraft were escorted by NATO fighters as they flew across the Atlantic Ocean.

On 12 October 2008, Tu-160s were involved in the largest Russian strategic bomber exercise since 1984. A total of 12 bombers including Tu-160 and Tu-95 aircraft conducted a series of launches of their cruise missiles. Some bombers launched a full complement of their missiles. It was the first time that a Tu-160 had ever fired a full complement of missiles.

On 10 June 2010, two Tu-160s carried out a record-breaking 23-hour patrol with a planned flight range of 9,700 nmi. The bombers flew along the Russian borders and over neutral waters in the Arctic and Pacific Oceans.

In August 2011, Russian media reported that only four of Russia's Air Force sixteen Tu-160s were flight worthy. By mid-2012 Flight International reported eleven were combat-ready and between 2011 and 2013 eleven were photographed in flight.

On 1 November 2013, Aleksandr Golovanov and Aleksandr Novikov entered Colombian airspace on two different occasions without receiving previous clearance from the Colombian government. The aircraft were going from Venezuela to Nicaragua and headed for Managua. The Colombian government issued a letter of protest to the Russian government following the first violation. Two Colombian Air Force IAI Kfirs stationed at Barranquilla intercepted and escorted the two Tu-160s out of Colombian airspace after the second violation.

On 17 November 2015, Tu-160 and Tu-95MS long-range strategic bombers of the Russian Air Force took part in the Russian military intervention in the Syrian Civil War, striking IS targets in the Idlib and Aleppo provinces with the Kh-101 air-launched cruise missiles fired from the Mediterranean. In total, 34 cruise missiles were fired, destroying 14 important terrorist targets. In addition, Tu-22M3 strategic bombers hit numerous IS targets with unguided ammunition. This also marked the combat debut for the Tu-160 and Tu-95MS.

In August 2018, number of Russian military aircraft including two Tu-160, Tu-95MS strategic bombers and Il-78 aerial tankers were deployed for the first time to the Russian Far East as part of a long-range tactical flight exercise. The aircraft completed a 7,000 km non-stop flight from their home base in Saratov Oblast and landed at the Anadyr Airport, Chukotka. During the exercise, the crews practised combat use of cruise missiles at the Komi Test Range and performed flights with aerial refuelling.

General Characteristics

Crew: 4 (pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, defensive systems officer)

Length: 54.1 m

Wingspan: 55.7 m wings spread (20°) 35.6 m wings swept (65°)

Height: 13.1 m

Wing area: 400 m² wings spread 360 m² wings swept

Empty weight: 110,000 kg

Gross weight: 267,600 kg

Max takeoff weight: 275,000 kg (606,271 lb)

Powerplant: 4 × Samara NK-321 afterburning turbofan engines, 137.3 kN (30,900 lbf) thrust each dry, 245 kN (55,000lbf) with afterburner

Maximum speed: 1,200 kn at 40,000 ft

Maximum speed: Mach 2.05

Cruise speed: 520 kn – Mach 0.9

Range: 6,600 nmi practical range without in-flight refuelling, Mach 0.77 and carrying 6 × Kh-55SM dropped at mid- range and 5% fuel reserves

Combat range: 1,100 nmi at Mach 1.5

Service ceiling: 52,000 ft

Rate of climb: 14,000 ft/min

Lift-to-drag: 18.5–19, while supersonic it is above 6

Wing loading: 742 kg/m² with wings fully swept

Thrust/weight: 0.37


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