The Tu-160 (NATO designation Blackjack) is the world's largest operational bomber. It is nicknamed the White Swan by the pilots. Dwarfing the similar-looking B-1B Lancer, it is the heaviest combat aircraft ever built. Unlike the B-1B, the Tu-160 bomber remains committed to both low-level penetration (at transonic speeds) and high-level penetration at speeds of about Mach 1.9.
Although the aircraft has a fly-by-wire control system all cockpit displays are conventional analogue instruments, with no multi-function or head-up displays. The long pointed radome houses a terrain following and attack radar. Below this is a fairing for a forward-looking TV camera used for visual weapon aiming.
The development programme of the Tupolev Tu-160 was extremely protracted; the prototype Tu-160 first flew in 1981 and the second aircraft was lost in 1987. First aircraft became operational in 1987. Series production was at Kazan and continued until January 1992, when President Yeltsin announced that no further strategic bombers would be built. It is believed that production totaled no more than 39 Blackjacks.
In 1989 the Tu-160 reached a speed of 2 200 km/h for the first time. However later maximum speed was limited to 2 000 km/h in order to extend service lives of the engine and fuselage. It is worth noting that the Blackjack set 44 world records.
Even after the aircraft entered service, problems continued to severely restrict operations and production began before a common standard and configuration was agreed. Thus wingspans, equipment fit, and intake configurations differ from aircraft to aircraft.
The Blackjack is armed with Kh-55 (NATO designation AS-15 Kent) cruise missiles and Kh-15 (NATO designation AS-16 Kickback) attack missiles. The aircraft can carry 12 Kh-55 and up to 24 Kh-15. Both of these missiles can carry nuclear warheads. Missiles are carried in two weapon bays. The Tu-160 can also carry free-fall bombs with a maximum weight of up to 40 t. These bombers are intended to attack the most important enemy targets. It is claimed that the Tu-160 has reduced radar cross section for stealth.
Nineteen Tu-160s were delivered to the 184th Guards Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment at Priluki (Ukraine) beginning in May 1987. These were left at the Ukrainian base after the break up of the USSR in 1991 and, after protracted discussions between Ukraine and the Russian Federation, eight were returned to Russia in 1999. Scrapping of the remaining Tu-160s held in Ukraine began in late 1998 under a contract issued by the US government. In early 2001, six Russian Tupolev Tu-160s were declared operational as air-launched cruise missile carriers under the START treaty. These are assigned to the 121st Guards Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment at Engels and were joined in 2001 by the first of the eight refurbished aircraft formerly held in Ukraine. Although perhaps up to a dozen further airframes are nominally serviceable it seems unlikely that Russia has sufficient funds to rework these aircraft. Some sources claim that Russian Air Force currently operates 16 of these strategic bombers.
US-based Platforms International Corp. has acquired three demilitarized ex-Ukrainian Tu-160s which it is converting as Tu-160SK launchers for space vehicles.