It remains a monster with wings — the fastest, largest and heaviest bomber ever built.
No, not the American Rockwell B-1 Lancer, which spurred its development, and definitely not the eight-engined B-52, which is still very much in use.
The Soviets called it “White Swan,” NATO called it “Blackjack” — by any name, the knife-edge Tu-160 was a variable-swept wing bomber capable of going supersonic and dealing a punishing blow, writes Caleb Larson in a special report for National Interest.
It was a legacy Soviet airframe utilized as a stand-off weapons platform, in which missiles are launched from the bomb bay doors while the “White Swan” would speed off at Mach 2+ to safety, the report said.
It is the only Soviet-designed bomber that does not carry any defensive weapons, although its prodigious 88,000 pounds of payload capacity can carry a dizzying array of conventional and/or nuclear weapons, the report said.
Why the nickname “White Swan” you ask? Because the entire plane is coated in a brilliantly white reflective coating. It’s protection for the crew.
The Tu-160 can carry a nuclear payload, which, obviously, creates a massively bright fireball. The thermal energy of nuclear explosions is enormous, and by reflecting some of that thermal energy (light), the crew is at least in theory somewhat more protected than otherwise, the report said.
Variable sweep wings are no longer in vogue, but offer some advantages. During low-speed flight, like landing or takeoff, a straight wing offers more lift. At higher speeds, especially in the supersonic range, a straight wing causes unnecessary drag, and a steeply swept wing would be more efficient, the report said.
Hence the variable-sweep capability of the Tu-160, which “unfolds” its wings at lower speeds, and “folds” them when flying supersonic.
Although there is no serious design flaw inherent to the Tu-160 design, one of the serious drawbacks is the fact that it is not stealthy, the report said.
But stealth is hard. And expensive. Russia’s only stealth aircraft, the Su-57 has had myriad teething problems and is unlikely to enter full serial production any time soon due to many issues — the plunging price of oil, upon which the wobbly Russian defense budget depends, and engine issues that may be difficult to rectify any time soon, the report said.
What to do when a new design isn’t working out as hope? Fall back on what’s tried and true, with an update.
Russia is currently working to modernize its existing fleet of Tu-160s with improved engines and avionics — giving the venerable design a new lease on life.