Russia’s Rebuild Soviet-era Tu-160M Bomber, A Sign Russia Does Not Have The Tech To Build PAK DA

Russia's first new-build example of the Tupolev Tu-160M strategic bomber made its debut flight on 12 January. Photo by UAC.

Russia’s first new-build example of the Tupolev Tu-160M strategic bomber made its debut flight on 12 January. The test flight took place at the aerodrome of Kazan Aviation Plant in Tatarstan, Russia. The aircraft was operated by Tupolev Design Bureau test pilots who evaluated the aircraft’s flight behavior.  

United Aircraft (UAC) says the 30min sortie – performed from the Kazan Aviation Plant – involved test pilots taking the aircraft to a maximum altitude of 600m (1,970ft). Moscow has so far ordered ten examples of the new-build strategic bomber.

“The crew performed manoeuvers to check the stability and controllability of the aircraft in the air,” it adds.

In 1981, the Tu-160 made its maiden flight. Six years later, it entered service within the USSR Air Force. After the fall of the Soviet Union, it remained the backbone of the Russian nuclear dissuasion. 

The Tu-160M is a modernized version of the Russian Tu-160 strategic bomber. It features new communication and control systems, a new radar system, and new means of electronic warfare. It is also fitted with new engine, the Kuznetsov NK-32-02.  

In 2015, the Russian government decided to reopen the assembly line of the Tu-160M in order to replace the antique Tu-95MS turboprop bombers. Ten aircraft were ordered, and up to 40 could eventually be assembled.

“We see significant prospects for the Tu-160 platform: further development will make it possible to use it for new types of weapons, including promising ones,” says Russian trade and industry minister Denis Manturov. While he did not provide specifics, the variable-geometry bomber is a clear candidate to carry hypersonic missiles being developed by Moscow.

America’s stealth jet designs are over a decade old, starting with F-117 Nighthawk, then the stealth bomber B-2 Spirit by a significant margin. The U.S. is in the final stages of assembly on no fewer than five B-21 Raiders, placing America squarely in the lead in the race to field the first new stealth bomber since 1989. Today, the United States is the only nation on the planet with a stealth bomber in service and two different stealth fighters in the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II.

For a good reason, PAK DA leverages a flying wing design, similar to Northrop’s B-2 Spirit and forthcoming B-21 Raider.

The Russian PAK DA program is a bit far away from China’s H-20, with Russia’s bomber slated to enter service in 2027 and China’s before the decade’s end. Tupolev has yet to develop a prototype or even mockup of the PAK DA bomber, while China decided to produce a full-scale mockup of the H-20 bomber.

Last month, Russia announced work on their prototype aircraft with plans to begin test flights in 2023, making their 2027 in-service goal possible, if still unlikely. Like all other Russian military development such as T-14 Armata, Su-57, N036 Byelka AESA radar, Zhuk-AME and NPO Saturn izdeliye 30 engine are just 20 years behind schedule.

Strategic bombers are tasked with flying deep into enemy territory where their targets are (you guessed it) strategic in nature. While an interdiction or fighter-bomber might engage enemy targets on the battlefield, a strategic bomber flies medium to long-range missions to engage enemy infrastructure, hardened facilities, and military installations. Strategic bombers compromise a nation’s ability to fight a war at the fundamental level.


Just how stealthy PAK DA bomber remains to be seen, and in fact, the bomber may never even come to fruition like the Su-57.

It’s no secret that Russia lacks baked-in, molding and machining technology. Russia’s stealth is limited by its ability to mass-produce aircraft with the extremely tight production tolerances required of a stealth fighter or bomber.

Unlike China, Russia still imports dual-purpose raw materials such as composites, carbon fibre and semiconductors from Germany, Italy, France, Israel, South Korea and Taiwan.

Russia is aware of its shortcomings in stealth technology, and as such, the nation’s air warfare doctrine doesn’t mirror America’s reliance on defeating or delaying detection. While the U.S. prioritizes stealth first in developing these platforms, Russian engineers view stealth as just one of many vital elements and arguably not one worth prioritizing at the expense of more conventional goals regarding speed or manoeuvrability.

Russia knows their shortcomings, and the so-called PAK DA may not be stealthy; for this reason, Russia diverted funding away from the PAK DA program to modernize Tu-160 to produce their flying wing in any significant numbers.

The PAK-DA is expected to enter serial production in 2027. Considering Russia has a history of delaying all military programs, specific production and delivery timelines remain elusive.

Moscow’s parallel effort to procure as many as fifty modernized Tu-160M bombers through 2030 suggests that the PAK-DA is still a ways off from entering service in large numbers before the 2050s.

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