Sure enough, the Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack and the Rockwell International B-1 Lancer look quite similar at first glance.
Sure enough, the Tupolev Tu-160 (NATO reporting name: Blackjack) and the Rockwell International B-1 look quite similar at first glance. Much has been said about the apparent Soviet custom of copying Western designs; this postulate is rooted in a firm conviction that Russia cannot produce anything worthwhile. However, as explained by Yefim Gordon & Dmitriy Komissarov in their book Tupolev Tu-160, Soviet Strike Force Spearhead, it is no surprise that the engineers developing both aircraft chose the cost same general arrangement, aerodynamic features and internal layout more than 20 years ago. Ideas are borne on the wind, as a Russian saying goes; and indeed, faced with similar general requirements and given basically the same levels of aviation science and technology, the two nations were bound to come up with similar results. However, a closer look at the two bombers reveals that the Tu-160 and the B-1 are not so similar after all.
Originating as the AMSA (Advanced Manned Strike Aircraft) programme in the mid-1960s, the B- 1 had a head start on the Blackjack. The programme made slow progress under the Lyndon B. Johnson administration but was revived under the new President Richard Nixon; the first prototype of the original B-1A (USAF serial 74-0158) first flew on Dec. 23, 1974, followed by three other prototypes, one of which was originally a structural test airframe. Unlike the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, which was then the mainstay of the USAF’s Strategic Air Command fleet, the B-1 was optimised for low-altitude air defence penetration.
However, programme costs kept mounting, and so did unit costs. This, and intelligence reports on the MiG-31 interceptor whose capabilities rendered even low-altitude penetrators vulnerable, worried Nixon’s successor President Jimmy Carter (known for his “belt-tightening” policies) so much that he finally cancelled the B-1 on Jun. 30, 1977, the last day of Fiscal Year 1977. Instead, he opted (in addition to ballistic missiles) for upgrading the existing B-52 fleet, allowing it to launch hundreds of Boeing AGM-86B (ALCM) cruise missiles; this was seen as a cheaper option and a more effective way of saturating the Soviet air defences in the event of a war. Also, Carter was informed of the recently launched ATB (Advanced Technology Bomber) programme which was deemed to hold greater promise than the AMSA and eventually materialised as the highly sophisticated Northrop B-2A Spirit stealth bomber.
Yet, soon the situation changed. For one thing, the Afghan War began in December 1979; for another, the Americans became aware that the Soviet Union was working on a new strategic bomber. All this prompted the US Department of Defense to revive the B-1 programme, adapting it to changing priorities; the result was the B-1B Lancer — or, as it is popularly known, the Bone (the sobriquet derives from “B-One”).
During the transformation from A to B the designers spent a lot of effort on reducing the B-1’s RCS; additionally, a more fuel-efficient version of the General Electric F101-GE-100 afterburning turbofan was fitted, and the avionics and armament were revised. The bomber’s maximum take-off weight rose from the B-1A’s 180,000 kg (395,000 lb) to 217,000 kg (477,000 lb). However, the B-1 lobby and the US Air Force did not succeed in convincing the US Congress that a whole range of costly features needed to be incorporated into the bomber’s design and the Congress slashed the funds for the programme. Hence, Rockwell International had to use rather less titanium than originally intended and the engines had simple fixed-area air intakes instead of variable supersonic intakes, restricting the B-1B’s top speed from the B-1A’s Mach 2.2 to Mach 1.25. The armament was to consist of AGM-86B cruise missiles, Boeing AGM-69A (SRAM) short-range attack missiles and nuclear bombs. When President Ronald Reagan entered office he decided to order the B-1 as a “near term” system to bridge the gap between the B-52 (which would be increasingly vulnerable to new Soviet air defence systems) and the ATB, but the order was reduced from the originally envisaged 244 units to just 100.
Aptly named Leader of the Fleet, the B-1B prototype (82-0001, c/n 1) entered flight test on Mar.23, 1983; it remained a company-owned test aircraft and was never delivered to the USAF. The first production aircraft (83-0065 Star of Abilene, c/n 2) took off on Oct. 18, 1984. The final B-1B (86-0140 Valda J, c/n 100) left the production line in 1988.
Conversely, the Tu-160 was developed by the world’s second superpower at a time when funding issues were of minor importance, if any – in those days the Soviet military got all the money they wanted, as long as the required weapons systems were developed and fielded on time. Hence the Tu-160 escaped the ‘vivisection’ the B-1 had been subjected to, and the aircraft which entered production and service with the Soviet Air Force was exactly what its creators had wanted it to be – a multi-mode aircraft capable of delivering intercontinental strikes within a wide altitude and speed envelope.
On the other hand, the production line in Palmdale, California, was turning out a steady stream of Lancers on schedule (or ahead of schedule) and the B-1B was already fully operational when Tu-160 production in Kazan’ was only just commencing. Today the “Bone,” together with the long-serving B-52H and the small number of B-2As, makes up the backbone of the USAF’s strategic component. Also, following retirement of the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark tactical bomber and the Grumman F-14 Tomcat shipboard air superiority fighter, it is currently the only ‘swing-wing’ aircraft in US service.
An opportunity to make an objective comparison 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 already mentioned, outwardly the Tu-160 is very similar to the B-I B; both aircraft share the same general arrangement, utilising the same BWB layout and variable-geometry wing design. Both aircraft have a crew of four, albeit the crewmen’s functions differ — instead of a navigator and a WSO, the B-1B has an offensive systems officer (equivalent to the WSO) and a defensive systems officer. However, there are differences. For example, on the B-1 only the horizontal tail is all-movable (the bomber has a conventional fin with a two-section inset rudder for directional control), but the stabilators are augmented by small all-movable canards — the so-called LARC (Low-Altitude Ride Control) vanes, later restyled as the SMCS (Structural Mode Control System) — giving a smoother ride in turbulence at low level. The Tu-160 lacks these vanes, since low-level operations are not its primary operating mode. The landing gear design also differs.
Also, the Russian bomber is rather larger and heavier, which is why the aggregate thrust of its engines is 79% higher – 100,000 kgp (220,460 lbst) versus 42,440 kgp (93,560 lbst). The operating speeds are quite different as well. As already noted the B-1B had to do without variable supersonic air intakes. Hence it has an operational limit of Mach 1.2 for structural integrity reasons, which is not ideal from a tactical standpoint. Conversely, the Tu-160 can cruise at Mach 1.5 thanks to its variable intakes, ample engine thrust and slender fuselage having a relatively small cross-section area. Low drag was attained thanks not only to streamlined contours but also to a carefully designed internal layout thanks to which the Tu-160’s fuselage height is no bigger than that of the much smaller Tu-22M3.
However, attaining high performance isn’t all about aerodynamics. The Tu-160 is designed in such a way as to achieve maximum possible range not only in high-altitude supersonic cruise but also in ultra-low-level flight. The crew is free to choose between these modes or use a combination of them to fulfill the mission with maximum efficiency. This is the Russian bomber’s multimode design philosophy.
Tupolev Tu-160 Soviet Strike Force Spearhead is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: TheDarthDesigner YouTube Channel, U.S. Air Force, Dmitry Terekhov from Odintsovo, Russian Federation and Alex Beltyukov via Wikipedia