Russia Pushes Ahead with New Strategic Bomber
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, subsequent sanctions by the West and embargoes on the supply of aerospace components do not appear to have deterred Moscow from development of its next-generation strategic bomber, the Tupolev PAK DA. In fact, the first flight of a prototype aircraft may come in 2024.
In May, an extremely interesting table showing the production plans of the Ilyushin Aviation Complex for 2022-30 could be found on the internet for just a few days. The numbers for civil aircraft in the table indicated the data was fresh, produced after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and under current economic conditions.
- Tupolev PAK DA is Russia’s answer to the B-21 Raider
- Leaked document indicates development continues
- Full-scale production likely to face difficulties
The Ilyushin Aviation Complex is an executive body for the Beriev Aircraft Co., which deals with special-purpose aircraft, including making parts for Russia’s answer to the U.S. Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider, the PAK DA bomber. According to the leaked table, Beriev is to make six sets of aggregate parts for test PAK DA aircraft by 2030: two each in 2023 and 2024, and one each in 2025 and 2026.
From other sources it is known that three flying test aircraft are planned to be built. Final assembly of the PAK DA bombers is set to be done by the Gorbunov Kazan Aviation Plant, a branch of the Tupolev Co.
The presence of the PAK DA in the leaked document means that the new wartime reality has not changed Russian plans—Moscow has no intention of abandoning this project.
Work on the new Russian strategic bomber has been launched and stopped several times, and for a long time it did not progress beyond projects on paper.
The current PAK DA program was launched in 2007 with the announcement of a design competition among Myasishchev, Sukhoi and Tupolev. Russia chose Tupolev, which won a three-year contract in August 2009 for research work code-named Poslannik, under which the company developed the conceptual design of the Product 80 aircraft. The Tu-160 Blackjack is Product 70. The project was approved by the Russian Defense Ministry in the spring of 2013.
In the next stage, on Dec. 27, 2013, the defense ministry contracted the preliminary technical design of the PAK DA. In May 2014, Viktor Bondarev, then-commander-in-chief of the Russian Air Force, announced that the first flight of the PAK DA prototype would take place in 2019. “In 2023, state acceptance tests will be completed and supplies for the military will begin,” he added.
The program was revised in 2014, when, after the annexation of Crimea, Russia was subject to Western sanctions, and world oil prices dropped significantly. At that time, Russia changed its priorities and resumed production of the modernized Tu-160M, judging that program less expensive. The main efforts of the Tupolev design bureau and the Kazan production plant, as well as financial resources, were thrown into modernizing and resuming production of the Tu-160M. Meanwhile, the PAK DA program slowed down.
The Russians returned to the PAK DA at the end of 2017. On Dec. 27, 2017, Tupolev won a defense ministry contract for Poslannik-1 research and development work, including completion of the design of the Product 80 aircraft and construction and trials of several test aircraft.
According to this contract, the aircraft was to complete acceptance tests by the end of August 2027. The day before the contract award, on Dec. 26, 2017, Tupolev also received a contract from Russia’s Industry and Trade Ministry for the “Tekhnologiya-80” program covering the development of basic technologies including the engine and preparation of serial production of the aircraft.
What Is Known
Quite unusually for a Russian military project of such importance, the basic characteristics of the PAK DA are not secret. Long-Range Aviation Commander Anatoly Zhikharev said in August 2014 that the PAK DA would be a subsonic flying wing capable of reaching a distance of 15,000 km (9,300 mi.) without refueling. According to a less official but still trustworthy Russian source, the Product 80 bomber is planned to weigh 145 metric tons at takeoff and is supposed to be able to carry up to 30 tons of weapons. Thus, the PAK DA is almost half the weight of the Tu-160 (275 tons) and is situated between the 124-ton Tu-22M3 and 185-ton Tu-95MS.
This March, Tupolev released a patent for an engine air intake of an aircraft resembling the PAK DA. Of course, the drawing attached to the patent does not need to show the exact bomber under construction. The PAK DA wing likely has a constant leading-edge angle, without the kink, as shown in the patent drawing.
After the main contract was awarded, subcontractors responsible for individual PAK DA systems were selected—approximately 100 lower-tier contracts in total. Most are traditional Tupolev partners. The Russians are trying to make the PAK DA a low-risk program, and the use of revolutionary technologies in the bomber should not be expected. Years ago, when resuming production of the Tu-160, then-Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said that “the maximum number of technological operations will be common” for the Tu-160M and PAK DA. Some of the subsystems and weapons are common to both aircraft.
The PAK DA is slated to be powered by two turbofan engines supplied by the United Engine Corp. (UEC) Kuznetsov. The engines appear to be an upgraded version of the NK-32 used in the Tu-160. Indeed, the new engine is planned to be based on the core (hot section) of the NK-32-02 engine of the Tu-160M and is supposed to provide a maximum thrust of 23 tons (the legacy NK-32 engine has a thrust of 14 tons dry and 25 tons with afterburner). The TA18-200-80 auxiliary power unit for the PAK DA is made by Aerosila.
Notably, the engine program is also code-named MD-80, or “cruise engine for the aircraft 80.” This formulation suggests that the aircraft may also use other engines. Indeed, another document includes information about a SD1C takeoff engine intended for the PAK DA; it is a solid-propellant type probably used for rocket-assisted launch.
An integrated avionics system is being designed by Ramenskoye RPKB. The radar system is being developed by the Tikhomirov NIIP Institute—that is unusual, as TsNPO Leninets supplies the radars for other Tupolev bombers. The PAK DA will receive an active, electronically scanned array radar based on the one used by the Sukhoi Su-57 fighter. The bomber will also have an optoelectronic sight from an unknown manufacturer.
MNPK Avionika is building the KSU-80 flight control system. The NO-80 navigation suite is designed by Moscow’s MIEA Institute. The K36L-80 ejection seats and crew life-support system are being developed by the NPP Zvezda Co. Traditionally, Russian bomber crews are large: the Tu-160 and Tu-22M3 have a crew of four, as does the Tu-95MS—though at times the crew is as large as seven. The PAK DA also likely has a four-person crew, as evidenced by the order for 12 ejection seats for three test aircraft.
The KNIRTI Institute is responsible for the self-defense suite, which is planned to include electronic jammers, directional infrared countermeasures (made by NII Ekran), towed decoys (NII Ekran) and a chaff/flare dispenser system.
Data shows that the basic variant of the PAK DA will carry 12 Kh-BD (long-range) subsonic cruise missiles, most likely placed on six-round rotary launchers in two bays inside the airframe, similar to the Tu-160. This new missile is also planned to be the main weapon of modernized Tu-160M bombers. Rotary launchers for firing cruise missiles from internal weapon chambers are made by NPP Start in Yekaterinburg.
On Aug. 28, 2013, Raduga Co. received a contract from the Russian Defense Ministry for a research and development project called Romans, for what is now the Kh-BD (Product 506) missile. According to the contract, the missile was to begin flight tests in 2018 and complete state acceptance trials in 2020. These deadlines appear to have been missed. The plant in Smolensk is being prepared for series production of the Kh-BD. The same facility produces air-launched Raduga Kh-101/Kh-102 (Product 504) cruise missiles, used by the Tu-160 and Tu-95MS, at a rate of approximately three missiles per month.
No Kh-BD missile has ever been publicly presented. There is also no information about its characteristics, except that its range is much farther than for the current Kh-101/102. Considering the dimensions of the Tu-160’s internal weapon bay, the cross-section of the Kh-BD missile is likely close to that of the Kh-101/102, which already fully uses the available space. All that remains is to increase the length of the missile body. The Tu-160’s weapon compartment was designed in the 1970s to carry a large, 10.8-m-long (35-ft.) Kh-45 missile. That original missile was abandoned, but the weapon compartment still contains a lot of free space, as the Kh-101/102 is about 7.4 m long.
Is This Realistic?
Anticipating anything in Russia is a high-risk activity these days. It is unknown what will happen in the nation within the next few months, much less years out.
But there are two arguments in favor of the PAK DA program. First, strategic bombers are the most important component of the Russian Air Force. Second, the program is so advanced that relatively little effort is required to complete the construction of several test aircraft.
In addition to its military significance, the PAK DA is important for Russia’s public image. During the Army exhibition in August 2021, Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov was asked to compare the PAK DA and the U.S. Air Force’s B-21. “We set ourselves the task of creating technology that surpasses the technology of other countries in terms of capabilities,” he replied.
The Russians’ mood may be spoiled by the Chinese Xian H-20, which will most likely be ready to fly earlier than the PAK DA.
Whether the PAK DA will begin series production and service will depend on factors that are difficult to quantify, both within and beyond the Russian aviation industry. Russia is unable to produce all the materials and components necessary for its aviation industry, especially electronics. If the Western embargo on deliveries, introduced after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, is effective, it could block aircraft production in Russia.
Another issue—less visible but no less acute—is that production tooling, both hardware and software, are almost entirely foreign to Russian industry. The Russians can use these tools for a while without manufacturer support, but that will become more and more difficult with each passing month.