Russia’s Tu-160 Strategic Bomber Faces Development Problems

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 49

Tu-160M2 production line (Source:

Russia’s nuclear weapons modernization program raises suspicions and fear internationally. This process, however, faces serious difficulties. A case in point is the Tu-160 strategic bomber, whose maker, Joint Stock Company (JSC) Tupolev, has had trouble fulfilling the necessary modernization and repairs on this nuclear-capable aircraft (RBC, March 24).

In 2015–2016 the Russian Ministry of Defense declared it was resuming production of the Tu-160: specifically, it would purchase 50 modernized Tu-160M2 versions. Reportedly, the Tu-160M2 has the same airframe as the original aircraft, but will feature completely new avionics. According to Deputy Defense Minister Yury Borisov, the combat effectiveness of the aircraft will be 2.5 times higher than that of its predecessor (Oruzhie Rossii, July 17, 2015).

Serial production of the Tu-160M2 is scheduled for 2020–2021. In October 2016, Borisov declared that the aircraft should become operational in 2024–2025, noting that the number of purchased units could change due to the simultaneous design of the PAK DA next-generation strategic bomber. The defense ministry intends to receive three Tu-160M2s annually; and if it keeps to its planned 50 aircraft order (RIA Novosti, October 13, 2016), these modernized bombers will continue to be produced until around 2040.

The production of the original Tu-160 was stopped in 1992, and the detailed design, construction and engineering knowledge remains only on paper. No defense industry workforce is currently familiar with the Tu-160; there are a lot of young people working at Tupolev, and they lack experience with such large-scale military projects (, September 8, 2016). In addition, the Kazan Aircraft Production Association (KAPO—the manufacturer of the Tu-160M2, which was unified with JSC Tupolev following to the restructuration of the United Aircraft Corporation) needs 1,000–1,500 more workers to rehabilitate its fabrication lines (RBC, March 10, 2016).

The production of a modernized Tu-160 strategic bomber will require close cooperation among several different plants and the organization of a whole production chain—something that has been a weak point in Russia. In recent years, the KAPO plant lost the ability to manufacture many high-tech aviation parts. The main problem is the need to replace products previously provided by Ukrainian enterprises, which in Soviet times participated in airplane manufacture as subcontractors. Documentation on the Ukrainian equipment was almost completely lost. The prototypes needed for testing are also reportedly gone (, September 8, 2016). Thus, much of the work on the modernized Tu-160M2 will have to be recreated independently from scratch, which requires extra time and money.

KAPO’s ability to fulfill the defense ministry’s ambitious production order is yet to be proven. According to Ravil Zaripov, the assistant for aviation to the president of Tatarstan, the full cycle production of the Tu-160 requires a substantial modernization of the KAPO plant (Realnoe Vremya, March 29, 2016). The first phase of the plant’s reconstruction is estimated to costs 4.3 billion rubles ($75 million) (, March 23, 2016). The money is unlikely to materialize quickly, thus pushing back the Tu-160’s production schedule. The modernization of the plant is predicted to cost tens of billions of rubles in total, and will last until 2020 (RBC, March 10, 2016).

Concurrent work on aircraft development and plant modernization leads to haste, which has a detrimental effect on both processes. The KAPO plant is already reportedly violating Russian labor laws (Evening Kazan, October 14, 2015) and failing to meet its contractual completion dates, which led to litigation in 2013 (Business Online, October 1, 2013). Apparently the decision to press ahead with the Tu-160M2 construction schedule before completing production plant modernization was made by KAPO CEO Nikolay Savickih, who, until July 2016, simultaneously served as the general director of JSC Tupolev but rarely visited the factory himself (Business Online, July 7, 2016).

It has become clear that KAPO is unable to cope with the agreed-upon schedule to overhaul and modernize the Tu-160 strategic bomber. In March 2017, the defense ministry complained that JSC Tupolev had yet to deliver 23 promised aircraft that were supposed to have undergone maintenance and modernization (RBC, March 24).

The company JSC Kuznetsov, which produces NK-32-02 engines for the Tu-160M2, has also encountered various problems. In 2014, its plant suffered losses of 1.271 billion rubles ($22 million), and about 924 million ($16.15 million) in 2015. In 2016, the net loss amounted to 4 billion rubles ($70 million) (Avia Port, February 27). According to auditors, JSC Kuznetsov is unlikely to function normally without support, in the form of financing and anticipated state contracts, from the Russian government and its main shareholder—United Industrial Corporation Oboronprom (News Video, March 22, 2016). Additionally, according to managing Director Sergey Pavlinich, the company needs to replace at least 40 percent of its machinery and to reconstruct the plant’s test stands, which will cost tens of billions of rubles over the next four years (TRK Terra, March 17).

The Military-Industrial Commission of the Russian Federation, which supervises and oversees the implementation of the State Defense Order, is promoting the idea of creating a Russian-Chinese wide-body aircraft with the same engines in order to reduce their costs through economies of scale. However, that project would require several billion dollars of additional investment. It means that the plant will need further state aid—but this might not materialize in time or in the quantity required. Moreover, JSC Kuznetsov is itself in the midst of plant modernization. The Ministry of Industry has allocated 8 billion rubles ($140 million) for the technical re-equipment of the facility. About the same amount will be received from the United Engine Corporation. The total disbursement approved for implementation by 2020 amounts to 17 billion rubles ($300 million). But because of the difficult economic situation, these funds may be cut, thus affecting the timing of the NK-32-02’s production (, September 13, 2016). The preproduction batch (5 units) of new NK-32-02 engines was to be delivered in 2016 (JSC Kuznetsov, February 9, 2016), but was postponed to 2017. Since the production lines have yet to be refitted, JSC Kuznetsov had to produce the old Soviet model of the Tu-160 engines to fulfill the State Defense Order (, March 1, 2017).

Due to mismanagement as well as difficulties related to plant modernization and aircraft renewal, serial production of the Tu-160M2 can be expected to be delayed by several years. The KAPO plant will require 12 engines per year to meet the government’s order for the planes, but JSC Kuznetsov cannot guarantee such amounts. Thus, the Russian defense ministry will either have to push back the scheduled deliveries of the Tu-160M2 or reduce the required number of aircraft.