Warplanes: Backfires Burnished To Buy Time


February 25, 2012: Russia is upgrading 30 of its Tu-22M3 bombers to the Tu-22M3M standard. The first of the M3M models recently entered service. This new version has improved electronics, is able to deliver smart bombs, and has in-flight refueling capabilities restored. Other components of upgraded aircraft were refurbished as needed. This is expected to keep these 30 Tu-22M3Ms in service for another decade or more. All 30 upgrades will not be completed until the end of the decade.

A decade ago Russia had over a hundred Tu-22M3 "Backfire" bombers in service. Or so it was claimed, as these aircraft didn't fly much. When the Cold War ended in 1991, over 300 were still in service. About 500 were produced between 1969 and 1993. The Tu-22M saw combat in Afghanistan, where it carpet bombed areas thought to contain Afghan rebels. Some were also used in the 2008 war with Georgia. Efforts to find export customers failed.

The Tu-22 is a 1970s design. It's a 126 ton, twin-engine, swing wing aircraft with a crew of four (two pilots, a bombardier and defensive systems operator). Originally it had a 23mm cannon mounted in a tail turret. It normally carries 12 tons of bombs and missiles (including cruise missiles) but can carry 24 tons over shorter distances. Max speed is 2,300 kilometers an hour and combat radius is 2,400 kilometers. Originally equipped for aerial refueling this capability was removed in the early 1980s to comply with the SALT treaty (which reduced U.S. and Russian nuclear capabilities). The Tu-22M was roughly equivalent to the 45 ton FB-111. Russia hopes to have a new bomber design in service by 2030, to replace the aging Tu-22M3Ms.

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