“Baby, you always double-down on 11. Always.” These are the sage words of advice that Trent Walker (Vince Vaughn) dispenses to Mike Peters (Jon Favreau) during the Las Vegas segment of the classic 1996 comedy film Swingers. In the actual casino game of blackjack, that is indeed a sound strategy. But from a U.S./NATO military strategist’s standpoint, the Russian Tupolev Tu-160 “Blackjack” bomber is something that Vladimir Putin’s arms industry will hopefully not double down on, as the 16 Blackjack airframes (as of 2016) in the current Russian Air Force inventory are scary enough.
Birth of the Blackjack Bomber
“Blackjack,” of course, is the NATO reporting name for this bomber, not the Russkies’; the latter refer affectionately to their homegrown Tupolev Tu-160 (Туполев Ту-160) as the Белый лебедь/Belyj Lebeď (White Swan). The warbird was designed and produced by the Tupolev Design Bureau – now known as Joint Stock Company Tupolev – headquartered in Moscow. Named for Soviet aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev, this is the same company that built the Tu-95 “Bear” propeller-driven strategic bomber as well as the Tu-16 “Badger” and Tu-22M “Backfire” jet bombers.
The “Blackjack”/ Belyj Lebeď in particular made her maiden flight on December 18, 1981, and officially entered into the service of the Sovietskiy Rodina (“Soviet Motherland”) in April 1987, thus earning the distinction of being the last strategic bomber designed for the USSR before the 1991 collapse. The ever-useful info pages provided by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) provide additional information:
“The Tu-160 is a multi-mission strategic bomber designed for operations ranging from subsonic speeds and low altitudes to speeds over Mach 1 at high altitudes. The two weapons bays can accommodate different mission-specific loads, including strategic cruise missiles, short-range guided missiles, nuclear and conventional bombs, and mines. Its basic armament of short-range guided missiles and strategic cruise missiles enables it to deliver nuclear strikes to targets with preassigned coordinates…The Tu-160 was the outcome of a multi-mission bomber competition, which included a Tupolev proposal for an aircraft design using elements of the Tu-144, the Myasishchev M- 18, and the Sukhoi a design based on the T-4 aircraft.”
Rip-Off of “The Bone?”
Due to both the physical appearance of the Tu-160 and the timing of its arrival on-scene, some postulate that this warbird is basically a rip-off of America’s B-1B Lancer aka “The Bone,” in the same vein that the Tu-4 was a reverse-engineered aircraft based on the B-29 Superfortress. However, the ever-savvy Dario Leone of The Aviation Geek Club asserts that this isn’t quite the case.
“However, there are differences. For example, on the B-1 only the horizontal tail is all-movable (the bomber has a conventional fin with a two-section inset rudder for directional control), but the stabilators are augmented by small all-movable canards — the so-called LARC (Low-Altitude Ride Control) vanes, later restyled as the SMCS (Structural Mode Control System) — giving a smoother ride in turbulence at low level. The Tu-160 lacks these vanes, since low-level operations are not its primary operating mode. The landing gear design also differs… Also, the Russian bomber is rather larger and heavier, which is why the aggregate thrust of its engines is 79% higher – 100,000 kgp (220,460 lbst) versus 42,440 kgp (93,560 lbst). The operating speeds are quite different as well. As already noted the B-1B had to do without variable supersonic air intakes. Hence it has an operational limit of Mach 1.2 for structural integrity reasons, which is not ideal from a tactical standpoint. Conversely, the Tu-160 can cruise at Mach 1.5 thanks to its variable intakes, ample engine thrust and slender fuselage having a relatively small cross-section area.”
Blackjacks Blooded In Battle
The first publicly known use of the Tu-160 in real-world combat operations took place in November 2015, whereupon five Blackjacks – as part of a 25-ship strike package that also included six Bears and 14 Backfires – launched cruise missiles against Islamic State/ISIS/ISIL/Da’esh ground targets in Syria. More recently – and not surprisingly – the bomber has been used for Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. Official press releases from Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence claim that the Blackjack’s deployed Kh-101 missiles that struck an apartment block in the Shevchenkivskyi district of Kyiv, killing one civilian whilst injuring a 7-year-old child and a woman.
Future Betting and Bidding on Blackjacks
Going back to what was said in the opening paragraph about the disturbing prospect of “doubling-down” on the Blackjack bomber, a report from Jane’s published this past January indicates that the Kremlin actually plans to more than triple down on the existing arsenal:
“Russia plans to eventually buy about 50 Tu-160M bombers and is upgrading 16 existing Tu-160s to the standard. With the first Tu-160M set to be delivered imminently, series production is to begin by 2023 at a production rate of at least three aircraft a year. This would fit with the order for 10 aircraft in the 2023–27 timeframe.”
NATO war planners might wish to hedge their bets accordingly.
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports.