Russia possesses exactly 11 warplanes capable of flying all the way around the world, darting through U.S. air defenses and launching bombs and missiles from close range.
And just to make sure, we spent hours tracking down each one of the speedy, globe-spanning jets online, to make sure they really can all still fly.
They can. That’s good news for Russia, and bad news for any rivals hoping Moscow’s most potent long-range warplanes had simply rusted away.
The condition of the Russian air force’s supersonic Tu-160 Blackjack bombers is, after all, a matter of strategic importance—and tends to fluctuate, according to news reports.
All told, there are 16 intact Tu-160 airframes concentrated at two air bases: the front-line bomber facility at Engels in southwestern Russia and the flight test center at Zhukovsky near Moscow. As recently as two years ago, Russian media reported that just four of the 16 swing-wing warplanes were combat-ready—and the rest in disrepair and unable to take off.
The Blackjacks’ then 25-percent readiness rate made America’s finicky B-2 stealth bombers, with their 40-percent readiness, seem positively workmanlike in comparison.
The Russian warplanes’ poor condition was partially a result of their complex, non-uniform design. Essentially hand-built one by one during the 1980s and early 1990s, the Tu-160s—300 tons fully loaded, 190 feet from wingtip to wingtip—are all slightly different, making standardized and efficient maintenance pretty much impossible.
But it was the collapse of the Soviet Union and long gaps in funding that were most damaging for the Blackjacks. The factories that produced spare parts and engines for the giant bombers eventually lost most of their skilled workers. In 2011, Moscow asked Kuznetsov Design Bureau to rebuild 26 of the Tu-160 fleet's NK-32 engines in two years, but the struggling company managed to complete only four—enough for one bomber.
Today Kuznetsov Design Bureau and the Kremlin are haggling over a new contract. The military wants to buy around five new NK-32s annually, but the company insists it won’t be economical to restart production for any fewer than 20 motors a year. “It’s noteworthy that there’s no alternative to the NK-32,” Izvestia reported.
Somehow, despite the industrial woes, Moscow recently claimed to have gotten an additional seven of the huge bombers into the air since the fleet’s low point two years ago.
To verify this alleged bomber renaissance, we painstakingly drew up a comprehensive list of the Blackjacks and searched high and low for recent photos of each plane in flight. Sure enough, just five Tu-160s have apparently not flown in 2011, 2012 or 2013.
The rest we found soaring in Russian air shows and training exercises and, in the case of two well-maintained bombers, cruising over Colombia after an epic round-the-world visit to Venezuela in late October—a voyage that brought the warplanes close to U.S. airspace. The Colombian air force scrambled Kfir jet fighters to shoo away the Tu-160s.
It’s an open question how long the Tu-160s might stay aloft. The engine woes aren’t getting any better. So barring a major industrial breakthrough, failing motors could begin to ground the 11 remaining Blackjacks within just a couple years.
It’s not for no reason that the Kremlin is pushing hard to develop a next-gen bomber to eventually replace the Tu-160s. It might just be easier to start fresh with a new model than to keep trying to revive Soviet-made planes, no matter how powerful the old machines might be.
For you completists, at bottom is our list of all the intact Blackjacks, providing each jet’s serial number and nose number, along with the date of the most recent photograph we could find of each of the 11 operational bombers in flight. The last five planes listed apparently aren’t functional.