A Russian aerospace engineer approached the US authorities seeking asylum and offering to share information on Russia’s Tu-160 strategic bomber program.
He and his family entered the US from Mexico in late December 2022.
According to an unclassified Customs and Border Protection (CBP) report the engineer said he has detailed knowledge about the Tupolev Tu-160 (NATO reporting name: Blackjack) and claimed to have worked at the Tupolev aircraft production facility in Kazan, Russia from 2018 to 2021.
For about a month, US government authorities conducted background checks on the person in question. Two Yahoo News sources said he was recognized as credible and of potential interest to the US, after which he was interrogated by the FBI. The report says the engineer was asked by the law enforcement about details of the production of the aircraft, as well as details of how the aircraft manufacturing plant functions: e-mail system, software, personnel, and equipment at the facility.
According to the CBP report, “The Tu-160 White Swan, also known by the NATO reporting name ‘Blackjack,’ is reportedly the most advanced strategic bomber in the Russian inventory and has been also used in a tactical airstrike role in the Ukraine war. According to open-source reporting, a major new construction program of an improved version of the aircraft as well as an upgrade program of existing aircraft got underway at the Tupolev facility during the past few years.”
The engineer is currently believed to be in the US and is still being questioned by officials.
“We of course know the Russian bomber well,” a military official told Yahoo News.
But the focus of the questioning is likely to be on the renewal of Blackjack production and the upgraded versions that were believed to have been in development during the period of the engineer’s employment.
In fact, the military official continued: “But specs, the real specs, nuclear capabilities — there are certainly things we would be interested in hearing about, if this guy is credible. The big thing is: did they retrofit it for hypersonic missiles?”
The Tupolev Tu-160 Beliy Lebed is a supersonic, variable-sweep wing, strategic bomber. The Blackjack is the largest and heaviest combat aircraft, the fastest bomber currently in use, and is the largest and heaviest variable-sweep wing airplane ever flown.
The Tu-160 entered operational service in 1987, and as of 2016 the Russian Air and Space Force (RuASF) fielded 16 Tu-160s. The Blackjack fleet has been undergoing upgrades to electronics systems since the early 2000s.
The restart of production of the upgraded Tu-160M variant was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2015 to bolster the air force’s strategic bomber capabilities at a time of increasing tension with the West, and to offset delays to the PAK-DA future bomber program.
Russia not only plans to eventually buy about 50 Tu-160M bombers but also to upgrade 16 existing airframes to the standard. 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.
The Tu-160M upgrade is being rolled out in two phases, with the first Tu-160M1 phase comprising the new K-042K-1 navigation system and ABSU-200-1 autopilot, as well as the removal of some previous systems, such as bomb sighting systems. The first upgraded Tu-160M1 has been delivered in December 2014.
The second Tu-160M2 phase includes the new Novella NV1.70 radar, a digital ‘glass’ cockpit, modern communications and anti-jamming equipment and modern conventional and nuclear weapons.
The new bomber will also be powered by upgraded versions of the existing Kuznetsov NK-32 afterburning turbofan. The upgraded engines are more fuel-efficient and more reliable than the original ones.
The photo below features the maiden flight of Russia’s first Tupolev Tu-160M that took place on on Jan. 12, 2022 at Kazan Aviation Plant.
Photo credit: Dmitry Terekhov from Odintsovo, Russian Federation and United Aircraft Corporation