Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 202

Russia’s Defense Ministry plans to buy 6 Tu-160 "Blackjack" strategic bombers from the Kazan Aircraft Production Association, the head of the Tupolev organization said yesterday. (Russian agencies, October 28) The supersonic Tu-160 — the largest bomber in the world — was developed in the late 1970s as a counterpart of the American B-1 bomber. In January, 1992, Russian president Boris Yeltsin, responding to some unilateral American nuclear weapons cuts, announced that construction of the Tu-160 would be halted. Within days Russia was left with only 6 of the aircraft when the bulk of the Soviet Tu-160 inventory went to newly independent Ukraine.

The factory in Kazan — which was the sole producer of the both the Tu-160 and the smaller Tu-22M "Backfire" — evidently finished some of the planes still in the pipeline and finally stopping working on the giant bombers in May, 1994. (NTV, May 17, 1994) Yesterday’s announcement said that five of the planes were ready for delivery, undoubtedly the ones finished in 1994. The Defense Ministry has apparently obtained the funds finally to pay for these aircraft and enough more to allow the Kazan plant to complete a sixth, previously unfinished plane.

For the past eight years there have been sporadic negotiations between Russia and Ukraine on the sale to Russia of at least some of the 19 Tu-160s inherited by Ukraine. These planes are in poor shape and the Russian Air Force has evidently decided it would be better off with a smaller number of factory-fresh bombers rather than spending the time, money, and effort to refurbish the former Soviet planes from Ukraine. The military will apparently leave it to Russia’s Foreign Ministry to finesse the problem of Yeltsin’s 1994 pledge to build no additional Tu-160’s. The Russians undoubtedly would also far prefer to give scarce procurement funds to an important Russian defense plant rather than to the Ukrainians.

The decision to acquire more Tu-160s underlines the importance that the Russian military — with its conventional forces in tatters — places on its nuclear deterrent. The new aircraft will strengthen the third leg of the Russian strategic triad and complement the steps taken in the other two: serial production of the new Topol-M land-based missile and construction of a new class strategic ballistic missile submarine.

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