The first, and so far only, nuclear weapons used against people were carried by bombers and guided into position by human pilots.
In the decades since, nuclear delivery systems expanded to include missiles as well as bombs. At the same time, the vehicles carrying such payloads expanded to include submarines and specially designed trucks. But in all of these situations, the human at the launch control always remained a key part of design.
As Russian military planners look to the middle of this century, could that mean putting a nuclear weapon in the control of a robot? An announcement by Russian leaders was not so explicit.
According to a report by Kelsey D. Atherton for C4ISR.net, speaking to a newspaper in December, Lt. Gen. Sergey Kobylash of the Russian Aerospace Forces stated that Russia would have a sixth-generation strategic bomber by 2040, and that this strategic bomber would already be unmanned.
Russia’s main strategic bombers, the Tu-95 and its maritime counterpart the Tu-142, entered service in 1956, and are expected to serve until the 2040s.
How Russia will adapt to the retirement of the main bomber leg of its nuclear triad is addressed in this announcement in two ways. There is the introduction of a new bomber timed to the full retirement of the venerable Tu-95s, the “already unmanned” bomber that Kobylash is alluding to.
In between now and that retirement is another Russian craft in the works, one that might portend the shape of bombers to come. Such an aircraft would fill the gap between the turboprop-powered Tu-95 and modest fleet of jet-powered Tu-160 bombers, the report said.
“Russia is actually working on the next-gen bomber — PAK-DA, which could be in service around 2027,” said Samuel Bendett, an adviser at the Center for Naval Analyses. “The real question is now whether PAK-DA will be in an unmanned configuration.”
When the United States announced plans for its latest bomber generation, it included the possibility of the B-21 bomber being “optionally manned,” a capability that would lend flexibility and possibly endurance to conventional bombing missions. (In 2014, an Air Force roundly rejected the notion of the B-21 carrying nuclear payloads without human crew on board.)
Whatever Russia’s ambitions are for uncrewed strategic bombers, it still has a lot of ground to make up first to have armed drones for more tactical missions.
“Russia is getting into [unmanned combat aerial vehicle] business — while it still does not have a strike drone in service, it recently tested Orion MALE UAV in Syria where it struck enemy positions,” said Bendett, who is also a fellow in Russia studies at the American Foreign Policy Council.
“Those drones are expected to enter service as early as 2020. Until now, Russia demonstrated the capability to conduct strikes from small drones, like quadrocopters/multirotor models.”
According to National Interest, PAK-DA is expected to fly by 2025–2026 and enter serial production by 2028 or 2029. Per tradition, the PAK-DA will receive a “Tu-” designation, as the majority of work conducted for it was done by Tupolev Design Bureau. This stands in contrast to the PAK-FA, which is now known as the Su-57. Both aircraft are products of Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation, which rolled together almost all Russian aircraft producers into a single conglomerate.
Similar to other modern aircraft programs, the dates for the initial service and prototyping of the PAK-DA have continued to be pushed back. While the prototype was originally slated to take off in 2019 (As announced in 2014), Tupolev’s director revised this to say that the rollout of the first prototype was expected around 2021–2022.
Currently, the UAC head says the prototype PAK-DA for flight tests will be produced around mid 2020. Tupolev is currently busy with the production of the new Tu-160M2, which recently is completing flight trials, so it suggests that the PAK-DA is still in a very early stage of development. Sources have stated that reduced scale mockups of the PAK-DA in composite and a full size mockup in wood have been constructed. The Tu-160M2 has been stated as a reason that the PAK-DA has been delayed, as the modernization took up a lot of Tupolev’s resources.
The actual role of the PAK-DA is only known in broad strokes. As a strategic bomber, the PAK-DA would be responsible for delivering nuclear weapons that penetrate enemy air defenses in the event of nuclear war, a role it will inherit from the Tu-95 and Tu-160 strategic bombers currently in service.
As current versions of the Tu-95 and Tu-160 currently use air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) as their primary delivery method for nuclear warheads, specifically the Kh-55SM and Kh-102, the PAK-DA will likely use further developed versions of these missiles or a new ALCM of fresh design.