‘Blackjacks’ on the prowl

A pair of Russian Air Force Tu-160 Blackjack bombers made their presence known today as they skirted British, French and Spanish airspace.

Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR4s shadowed the Blackjacks as they flew around Norway and down the west of Ireland. French Mirage 2000-5s and Rafales then took over the escort, before handing over to Spanish EF-18s.

Imagery showed one of the Blackjacks as RF-94100, named after Nikolay Kuznetsov.

Currently, the Russian Air Force has 16 Tu-160s assigned to the air base at Engels; however, some of these are under overhaul and upgrade at the Kazan plant. One further aircraft, serial 4-01 Boris Veremey (named after the first pilot to test the Tu-160 in 1981), belongs to Tupolev and is based at Zhukovsky where it is operated without a tactical number; previously, it wore the ‘Bort’ numbers ‘63’ and then ‘342’, the latter applied for the Tu-160’s first international presentation at Le Bourget in June 1995. The aircraft is used as a prototype for future upgrades. Several other non-airworthy airframes at Zhukovsky are probably beyond repair.

On April 29, 2015, during a visit to the aircraft production plant in Kazan, the Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoygu unexpectedly presented the idea of resuming series production of the Tu-160 bomber; the first rumors about this had emerged a month or two earlier. According to commander-in-chief of the Air Force Viktor Bondarev, the first new Tu-160M2 will fly in 2021, and in 2023 series production will begin at a rate of three aircraft per year. In total the Air Force needs at least 50 new Tu-160M2 aircraft, which are expected to serve at least 40 years. In September 2015 the Russian government requested the assignment of 3.796 billion rubles (about $60 million) from the budget before the end of the year in order to prepare documentation and launch production of the Tu-160. It is likely that the new Tu-160M2 will feature equipment and weapons similar to those included in the second-stage Tu-160M upgrade. The powerplant will comprise newly produced NK-32-2 engines, but the timescale is such that it is unlikely that any other major changes will be incorporated in the new Blackjack.

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