A new report claims Russia is making progress on a new nuclear-capable bomber, PAK-DA.
Moscow sorely needs the new bomber, its first in more than 40 years.
While Russia could field prototypes, full production remains uncertain as Western sanctions over the war in Ukraine will deprive Russia of technology it needs to build the aircraft.
Russia’s much-delayed PAK-DA strategic bomber—the country’s first large combat jet in decades—may finally be on track for a 2024 test flight. Still, despite more than a decade of intermittent progress, designers and engineers could see their hopes dashed for the new plane as a result of sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The failure of the bomber program could spell the eventual end of the Russian bomber fleet.
The PAK-DA program began in 2009, when Moscow held a competition to design a new long-range bomber. Tupolev, a Moscow-based aircraft design bureau with roots going back to before World War II, won the competition. Tupolev designed Russia’s entire fleet of heavy bombers, including the Tu-95 (NATO code name: “Bear”), Tu-22M3 (“Backfire”), and Tu-160 (“Blackjack”) bombers.
The Tu-95 “Bear” bomber first flown in 1952 is in serious need of a replacement.
All three bombers, with dates of introduction ranging from the 1960s to the 1980s, are old, obsolete designs. The Tu-95 uses four propeller-driven engines, and Tupolev designed the bomber before stealth was even a consideration; as a result, it is limited to only carrying cruise missiles, launching them from outside enemy radar range. It is roughly similar to the American B-52 bomber. The Tu-22M3 uses variable geometry “swing” wings and can carry both unguided bombs and cruise missiles. The Tu-160 is a large bomber with swing wings, built with stealth characteristics that make it a peer of the American B-1B Lancer bomber.
Russia has no equivalent to the B-2 Spirit, America’s stealth bomber introduced in 1988. PAK-DA, according to Aviation Week & Space Technology, is designed to leap ahead of the B-2 and compete directly with the upcoming B-21 Raider bomber. The bomber will be Russia’s first flying wing design. It will weigh 145 metric tons at takeoff with a weapons payload capacity of up to 30 tons. The B-2 Spirit, meanwhile, has a maximum takeoff weight of 150 metric tons and can carry up to 40 tons of weapons.
Russian bomber development essentially ended with the Cold War, and as a result, Moscow fields no bombers as sophisticated as the 30-year-old B-2 Spirit.
PAK-DA will have a range of 9,300 miles, while the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber has a combat range of 6,600 nautical miles. Russia has fewer aerial refueling tankers to support long-range missions, which necessitates the range to return to Russia without refueling, where the bombers could be rearmed and refueled for their next mission. American bombers can expect greater tanker support over the course of a long-range mission, allowing designers to prioritize payload over fuel.
Russia plans to equip the new Tupolev with 12 new Kh-BD land attack cruise missiles. Kh-BD, like PAK-DA itself, has been in development for years without any concrete progress. The missiles, like the current-generation Kh-101 cruise missile, will carry conventional or nuclear warheads. They will also have an even longer range than the Kh-101, which at 3,400 miles is the longest range in the world for an operational cruise missile.
Russia needs Kh-BD, as there are signs Kh-101 is not all it’s cracked up to be. Kh-101 missiles are allegedly low observable, meaning they are built with some stealth features to reduce an adversary’s ability to detect them. Despite these features, the Ukrainian military claimed last week that it shot down seven out of eight Kh-101s fired by a single bomber. Kh-101 missiles also have reportedly experienced a high failure rate. This strongly suggests PAK-DA needs a new cruise missile to be effective in combat.
The development of the new bomber, difficult even before the war, could grind to a standstill as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Western countries have imposed sanctions to punish Russia, crippled its economy—and those sanctions will not be lifted anytime soon. An economic decline will inevitably reduce the Russian defense budget, and Moscow will be forced to prioritize existing equipment over developing new weapons.
International sanctions will also reduce Russia’s ability to build new planes and missiles. According to Ukrainian intelligence, Kh-101 missiles contain parts that American tech giants have made, including Texas Instruments, Cypress Semiconductor, Infineon Technologies, Intel, and Micron Technology. However, Western tech companies have cut Russia off from the microchip market to comply with the sanctions regime. In response, Russia’s military industrial complex has begun stripping washing machines and refrigerators of microchips to use in the production of new weapons.
PAK-DA is off to a turbulent start, and Russia’s war may force it to circle back for a landing. This would have grim repercussions for Russia’s bomber force. The existing fleet of Tu-95, Tu-22, and Tu-160 bombers is old and needs replacement. If a replacement isn’t forthcoming, Russia will abandon the bomber arm of its nuclear triad. Heavy bombers are also a hallmark of great power status, with only the United States, Russia, and China fielding them. If Russia doesn’t find some way to keep its bomber project flying, the great power club may become even smaller by the 2040s.