The Russian military and many of the world’s top aviation experts believe that the combination of the Tu-160’s performance and design features theoretically gives it an edge over the B-1B and the stealthy B-2A.
An opportunity to make an objective comparison between the Blackjack (as the Tupolev Tu-160 is coded by NATO) and the Bone (the B-1B’s nickname deriving from “B-One”) of the two vive types came on Sep. 23-25, 1994, when the Tu-160 and the B-1B “rubbed noses” (fortunately not literally) for the first time at Poltava AB in the Ukraine during the 50th anniversary celebrations of Operation Frantic (the shuttle raids against Germany), to which the USAF sent a large delegation. The flight and ground crews of both bombers had a chance to examine each other’s aircraft and make an opinion for themselves.
As explained by Yefim Gordon & Dmitriy Komissarov in their book Tupolev Tu-160, Soviet Strike Force Spearhead, the Blackjack has an advantage in offensive capability to a certain extent — its main weapon, the Kh-55SM cruise missile, is well mastered by both the industry and the bomber crews, as well as the Kh-555 and Kh-101/Kh-102 cruise missiles. Conversely, the Americans were unable to adapt the B-1B to take the costly AGM-86B due to budgetary constraints — this would require not only the bomb bays to be modified but also the avionics suite to be substantially altered. The AGM-69A had to be excluded from the inventory in 1994, because the stockpile of missiles had reached the end of their shelf life and the solid propellant the had started decomposing. This left the B-1B with only the B61 and B83 free-fall nuclear bombs (although a small number of B28 nukes remained available in 1996). As of 1996 the USAF had plans to integrate the General Dynamics AGM-129A (ACM) advanced cruise missile on the B-1B. The Boeing AGM-131A (SRAM II) was also proposed but was cancelled in September 1991. Later, however, the B-1B was upgraded in stages (so-called blocks) to carry new weapons — the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) guided bomb, the Wind Corrected Munitions Dispenser (WCMD), the Raytheon AGM-154 Joint Stand-off Weapon (JSOW) and the Lockheed Martin AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Stand-off Munition), substantially improving its offensive capability. The Lockheed Martin Sniper external laser targeting pod was integrated on the B-1 fleet in 2007. Upgrades were also made to the defensive avionics suite, including the addition of the ALE-50 towed decoy system, and anti-jam radios were fitted.
As for conventional munitions, the Lancer did not receive a conventional capability until after the First Gulf War (true, live weapons tests began in 1991 but the fleet-wide upgrade came too late for the action). Conversely, the Tu-160 was to have a conventional capability from the start, hence the inclusion of the OPB-15T electro-optical bombsight into the targeting suite; on the other hand, it never actually used free-fall bombs.
The approach to weapons carriage is different, too. The B-1B has three weapons bays (two ahead of the wing pivot box and one aft), while the Tu-160 has two bays of larger size. Also, the Lancer has provisions for carrying missiles on six external hardpoints under the forward, centre and rear fuselage, whereas on the Blackjack all armament is carried internally. This helps reduce the bomber’s RCS and reduce drag, thereby increasing range — albeit this also accounts for the larger size of the Tu-160.
As regards avionics and equipment, the B-1B apparently comes out on top thanks to its avionics suite which includes a Westinghouse AN/ALQ-161 synthetic aperture radar and a comprehensive defensive suite. According to press reports, Russian and Ukrainian pilots rated the Lancer’s flight instrumentation as excellent; the flight deck features an electronic flight instrumentation system as opposed to the Tu-160’s conventional mechanical instruments. As far as crew comfort and cockpit ergonomics are concerned, the two aircraft are about equal, although the B-1B’s flight deck offers somewhat less headroom, being encroached on from below by the nosewheel well.
The Russian military and many of the world’s top aviation experts believe that the combination of the Tu-160’s performance and design features theoretically gives it an edge over the B-1B and other American bombers, including the stealthy B-2A – but theory is one thing and real life is another. First, the B-1 B was already well mastered when Tu-160 crews were just getting to grips with the aircraft and were hampered by loads of restrictions. Then, due to persistent funding shortfalls the Russian Air Force had serviceability issues with its bomber fleet and suffered from fuel shortages in the 1990s. This, in turn, created the problem of providing enough and flying hours for the crews; maintaining proficiency was a sore problem for the Russian airmen. For instance, both the `Bone’ and the Blackjack have IFR capability; however, B-1B pilots practiced aerial refuelling almost weekly — something their Russian colleagues could only dream of. In the 21st century the situation started to improve for the Tu-160 crews, with fuel being readily available and numerous exercises giving them a chance to hone their skills.
From an operational reliability standpoint the two types are broadly similar. Both have had their share of powerplant and avionics reliability problems.
Here is the opinion of former 37th VA Commander Lt.-Gen. Mikhail M. Oparin:
“I have a deep respect for the people who charted the development perspectives for the Long-Range Aviation in the 1980s/early 1990s time frame. The structural strength reserves and upgrade potential of the Tu-95MS and Tu-160 strategic bombers allows them to be called aircraft of the 21st century, and with good reason — the missile strike aircraft still have unused potential. These bombers are not only a match for the best Western hardware but excel it in certain respects. I know what I’m saying because I have had a chance to study the strategic aircraft of our ‘friends and rivals’ firsthand. I had the opportunity to fly a real B-52, and I made several flights in the B-1 simulator; after this I was enchanted by the Tu-9SMS and especially the Tu-I60.”
It would be best to conclude with the following words from former Russian Air Force C-in-C Army General Pyotr S. Deynekin:
“What do you best compare the ‘Il’ya Muromets’ (the Tu-160 – Auth.) with? The Tu-95? Or perhaps the An-124? (The An-124 is the world’s heaviest operational military airlifter — Auth.) I guess the correct answer is the B-1B Lancer, the Tu-160’s American counterpart. In May 1992, I made three flights in a B-1B over the Nevada Desert, flying the bomber from the left-hand seat, with multiple top-ups from a KC-135 tanker. I have a commemorative picture signed by the Commanders of USAF bomber wings. I daresay they are both good aircraft and worthy rivals — as, incidentally, are the men who fly them. This is why we’d better be friends than foes, and the Americans are well aware of this.”
Tupolev Tu-160 Soviet Strike Force Spearhead is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, Dmitry Terekhov from Odintsovo, Russian Federation and Alex Beltyukov via Wikipedia
Top image: (L) Tu-160 © REUTERS/Grigory Dukor; (R) B-1B Lancer © Christopher Quail/Handout via REUTERS via RT