Aviation History

The story of when the US tried to buy three Tu-160 strategic bombers for use as launch platforms for Pegasus Space Launch Vehicle

In March 1999, the Ukrainian MoD was authorised by the government to sell the three Blackjacks, plus spares, to the American company Platforms International Corp. for use as the first stage of a suborbital launch space system.

In the Ukraine, the collapse of the Soviet Union had no dramatic effect on the daily activities of the 184th Guards Heavy Bomber Regiment (GvTBAP) at first. However, in the spring of 1992, the Ukrainian government began on administering the oath of allegiance to the military units stationed, in the republic, and an exodus of personnel ensued. The 184th the GvTBAP’s turn was on May 8, 1992, but only about 25% of the flight crews and 60% of the ground personnel chose to take the oath; the regiment’s then-current CO Col. Valeriy I. Gorgol’ was the first to do so. The Ukraine also appropriated the 409th APSZ at Uzin AB which supported the Tu-160s’ operations. Most of the Ukrainian Air Force aircraft received the new national insignia in the form of blue/yellow roundels on the wings and a blue shield with a yellow trident on the tail (the Il-76MD transports and Il-78s were an exception, remaining civil- registered). On the Tu-160s at Priluki, however, in most cases the Soviet star insignia were simply painted out (rather untidily) and the Ukrainian Air Force (UAF) insignia never applied.

As told by Yefim Gordon & Dmitriy Komissarov in their book Tupolev Tu-160, Soviet Strike Force Spearhead, at first the Ukraine even took pride in possessing strategic aircraft. However, it soon became clear that the bombers were in reality a white elephant. For a maximum-range sortie each aircraft required 170 tons (374,780 lb) of kerosene, and 40 tons (88,180 lb) of fuel were needed for a training flight over home ground. According to the UAF command, the maintenance costs of the strategic bomber fleet amounted to US$1.4 million per year.

Russia tried to recover the Blackjacks; almost immediately the Russian government started negotiating the purchase of the Tu-160s at Priluki AB and the Tu-95MSs operated by the 1006th TBAP at Uzin AB. The first negotiations about the fate of the strategic aircraft and air-launched cruise missiles remaining in the Ukraine began in 1993. These failed to yield any results: the price of US$25 million apiece offered by Russia was regarded as ridiculous by Kiev, which demanded US$75 million for each aircraft. Then Russia proposed exchanging the bombers for tactical aircraft and spares for same, but the Ukraine was not interested.

Tupolev Tu-160, Ukrainian Air Force

The negotiations on the purchase by Russia of ten fully serviceable Ukrainian Tu-160s continued in 1995. While Russia needed these aircraft badly, having only six Tu-160s at Engels, the prospect of Russia bolstering its strategic aviation absolutely did not suit Russia’s arch-opponent, the US, which would much rather see the bombers destroyed than have them fall into Russian hands. Hence, riding hard upon the anti-Russian sentiment that existed in certain Ukrainian circles, the US State Department started putting pressure on Kiev, demanding that the Ukraine comply with the START-2 treaty which required the Soviet Union to dismantle its strategic bombers not later than Dec. 4, 2001. Starting in 1993, the possible sale of the Tu-160s was brought into the discussion more than 20 times but the parties could not agree on the price. Meanwhile, the condition of the bombers slowly deteriorated.

After the first round of negotiations the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council took the decision to dispose the Tu-95MS and Tu-160 strategic aviation/missile systems. The carnage was funded by the US under the Co-operative Threat Reduction Program (also called the Nunn-Lugar Program after Senators Samuel Nunn and Richard Lugar who got it through Congress). The US Congress officially allocated funds — variously reported as US$8 million or US$13 million — for the destruction of for the heavy bombers and cruise missiles remaining on Ukrainian soil; appropriate deals were signed with specialised contractors. After the completion of the scrapping operation Ukraine would have the right to sell the metal.

In 1998, the Ukraine began scrapping its Tu-160s which the US military were so worried about. On Nov. 16, 1998, the first victim — a Tu-160 coded “24 Red” (f/n 5-02) — was ceremonially broken up at Priluki AB in the presence of Senators Richard Lugar and Charles Levin; the aircraft, which was manufactured in 1989, had logged 466 hours total time since new (TTSN), which is next to nothing for a strategic bomber. The work was supervised by the American aerospace company Raytheon.

The second Blackjack to be disposed was “14 Red” (f/n 6-04), one of the few that did receive Ukrainian Air Force markings; it had gained fame in the aviation community alter being am displayed at Poltava in late September 1994, during the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the American shuttle raids over Germany with a staging point in Poltava. This aircraft which was built in 1991, had less than 100 hours TTSN! Its scrapping was completed in November 1999. The American experts worked in Priluki day and night.

On Dec. 5, 1998, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence and the US Department of Defence formally signed an agreement on the destruction of 44 Ukrainian heavy bombers and 1,068 Kh-55 cruise missiles. Under a supplementary agreement the deal was amended: 16 Tu-160 bombers would be scrapped, and three would be spared from the guillotine and modified for use as the first stage of a suborbital launch space system. In March 1999, the Ukrainian MoD was authorised by the government to sell the three Blackjacks, plus spares, to the American company Platforms International Corp., which was to convert the bombers into launch platforms for Pegasus Space Launch Vehicles (SLVs) placing satellites into low-Earth orbit. The price was to be just US$20 million for the lot (!). The organisation of the launches was assigned to the American company Orbital Network Services Corporation.

Senator Richard Lugar and Ukrainian General Vladimir Mityuk stand in front of a Blackjack bomber in November 1998.

The Russians, however, blew the whistle, pointing out to the Ukrainian and US governments that the deal would be a breach of the START-2 treaty. Understandably enough, Russia would do everything to stop its most modern bomber from falling into American hands. Somewhat surprisingly, Russia’s position found support in Washington, which also spoke up against any infringement of the treaty’s basic stipulations by the Ukraine; therefore Kiev had to abandon the plan.

In April-May 1999, Moscow and Kiev discussed the possibility of exchanging eight Tu-160s and three Tu-95MSs for Antonov An-22 Antey (Antheus/Cock) and An-124 Ruslan heavy transports from Russian Air Force stocks. The Ukrainians were in a hurry to strike a deal on favourable terms because of the abovementioned Dec. 4, 2001 deadline. The US attempted to throw a spanner in the works, trying by all means to prevent Russia from bolstering its strategic power, and insistently urged the Ukraine to scrap the bombers, promising to finance the disposal.

Nevertheless, the American plans were foiled. In early August 1999, Russia and the Ukraine finally drafted an intergovernmental and agreement on the transfer of eight fully serviceable Tu-160s, three Tu-95MSs and 575 Kh-55, Kh-55SM and Kh-22NA cruise missiles (the latter type was carried by the Tu-22M3), plus ground support equipment, to Russia. This was to offset the Ukraine’s US$275 million outstanding debt for Russian natural gas deliveries. Having no money to settle the debt, the Ukraine had to agree. The total worth of the bombers was approximately US$285 million.

The irritation of the US caused by the transfer of eight Blackjacks and three Bear-Hs to Russia passed largely unnoticed for the outside world. However, people who were directly engaged in the negotiations recall that Washington had expressed its displeasure to Kiev at the MoD delegation level in connection with the transfer of the 11 aircraft to Moscow. The formal pretext was that the Raytheon company tasked with the scrapping had been deprived of a part of the planned work (and hence money), but the real reason was that the transfer had given Washington some food for thought. The don! Russian Air Force was then due to field two brand-new air-launched cruise missile types (the conventional Kh-101 and the nuclear-tipped Kh-102) capable of striking targets within 5,000 km (3,105 miles) from the launch point with a circular error probable of just a few metres. Together with the strategic bombers available to Russia it would appreciably reinforce the airborne component of the “former” potential adversary’s nuclear triad (and the “former” bit was open to doubt); the Russian Air Force could strike at targets on the territory of any state without coming within range of its air defences.

Tupolev Tu-160 Soviet Strike Force Spearhead is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Office of Senator Richard Lugar and Igor Bubin via Wikipedia

Ukrainian Air Force Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bomber
Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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