The Russians have been planning and proposing a stealth bomber project for decades. Finally, construction has begun on the generational effort, Tupolev Design Bureau’s PAK-DA. Recent reports suggest that the first-ever PAK-DA prototype is nearly complete while plans for six more bombers seem to be in place. If Russia is indeed on the verge of completing its first stealth bomber, it would represent a shrinking of the stealth aircraft lead that the U.S. has had since its stealth aircraft first debuted, in the 1980s.
Russia is Playing Catchup
While Russia has a long, proud history of cutting-edge aerospace design when it comes to stealth technology, the U.S. has always been the industry leader. The Americans are yet to have a plausible rival in the stealth arena. Pioneering the technology in ever-improving increments, American minds developed the supersonic SR-71 Blackbird, the BatMan-esque F-117 Nighthawk, the supermaneuverable F-22 Raptor, and the data-sharing F-35 Lightning II. And in the next few years, Northrop Grumman is expected to debut its mysterious B-21 Raider, an intercontinental stealth bomber that will replace the U.S. Air Force’s existing stealth bomber – the only operational stealth bomber in the world – the flying-wing B-2 Spirit. When the B-21 enters service in the late 2020s, Russia and China will be pressed to reciprocate with a comparable aircraft – if they can.
China has recently accelerated its stealth technology development, largely by using industrial espionage, and the smuggling of the U.S. stealth helicopter that went down in the bin Laden raid. China has made gains with respect to stealth tech. Although, China’s first stealth bomber, the H-20, remains just a prototype, meaning China has a long way to go, to catch the Americans who have been flying stealth aircraft for nearly four decades. Russia’s stealth platforms are more concerning, however; Russia may be closer to fielding an operational stealth bomber: the PAK-DA.
Russia’s Shrouded Entry Into Stealth
Tupolev’s PAK-DA has remained shrouded in secrecy; very little is known about the new bomber. If Western intelligence knows anything about the PAK-DA they haven’t chosen to share that information with the general public; we commoners likely won’t know much about the bomber, at least until the bomber is finished and flying. At present, we understand that the PAK-DA is intended to serve as a long-range stealth bomber, crafted in the flying wing style that the Americans popularized with the B-2 and B-21.
The PAK-DA is expected to operate at subsonic speeds, like the B-2. And like the B-2, the PAK-DA will depend upon stealth tech to avoid detection – something Russia has struggled to accomplish in the past. Russia’s only stealth fighter, the Su-57, is derided as the least stealth-capable of all the stealth fighters. But who knows, perhaps the Russians are learning. The adoption of the flying wing design, which has proven successful in the B-2 airframe, suggests the Russians are paying close attention to their competitors.
The new bomber is expected to carry a four-person crew, plus a massive ordnance payload. The PAK-DA’s precise payload abilities are currently not perfectly clear – but consensus holds that the bomber will be able to heft more than 30 tons. To put that number in perspective, consider that the upcoming B-21 is expected to handle just 15 tons of ordnance. Meanwhile, the eight-engine B-52 carries 35 tons, suggesting that the PAK-DA will be a very big airplane.
There is one question lingering above the rest: will the PAK-DA ever fly? While Russia has completed a full-size wooden PAK-DA mock-up, the first prototype is not yet finished. The Russians hope to fly their prototype in 2023, in time to enter mass production by 2027. That timeline seems optimistic.
“The Russian economy is one-dimensional and contracting – while international sanctions imposed in response to the Ukraine invasion have accelerated Russian economic decline. Further, the Ukraine invasion has demonstrated how comprehensively lacking the Russian military is – from their equipment to their logistical planning. The point being: Russia may not have the resources to develop and produce a cutting edge stealth bomber for the first time in the nation’s history,” I wrote in May.
With resources dwindling amidst a prolonged Ukraine invasion, the Russians may have to focus on projects less ambitious than a stealth bomber – like resupplying their decimated tank ranks.
What the Experts Think:
“It seems highly, highly unlikely that Russia will ever build the PAK-DA, as they simply don’t have the funds or experience to build such an aircraft,” explained Harry J. Kazianis, President of the Rogue States Project. “It would cost billions of dollars that Moscow does not have – and with no guarantee of success.”
Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon, and New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.