January 16, 2020:
A Russian program to refurbish and modernize its Cold War era Tu (Tupelov)-22 "Backfire" heavy bombers is running into more problems. The Russian Air Force wanted to design a new heavy bomber but despite making a good case for that, the money wasn’t there and with the 2013 collapse in oil prices and 2014 economic sanctions, the defense budget problems were not going to change any time soon. So a series of Tu-22 upgrades were undertaken. This seemed to work, except for one problem. Three times in the last three years one of these upgraded aircraft have crashed. The latest accident, at the end of 2019, involved an engine failure on takeoff. The pilot promptly sought to make an emergency landing. The pilot did not want to risk turning around and making it back to the airbase because there residential areas near the base. Instead, he found a large open area ahead of the aircraft and made a successful belly landing. The landing gear would not likely work landing in a field and the belly landing did minimal damage. The problem now is to make repairs and get the Tu-22M3 back to base. The two other accidents were less successful and led to the destruction of the aircraft and the deaths of crew members.
Meanwhile, the upgrades proceed. At the end of 2018 the latest, and apparently last, version of the Russian Tu-22 bomber made its first flight. The Tu-22M3M is a major upgrade of the existing Tu-22M3 long-range bombers. The M3M version gets new engines and 80 percent of its electronic systems replaced, largely with more powerful systems. The M3M has all digital controls and added EW (electronic warfare) detection, defensive and offensive capabilities. There is an AESA radar and a new fire control system that can handle a larger variety of missiles and smart bombs. The upgrades and refurbishment extend the life of these heavy bombers to 45 years. The 30 late model Tu-22M3s selected for the M3M upgrade were built in the late-1980s and early 1990s. That means these would be able to serve into the 2030s. Most of them anyway. Upgraded Russian warplanes have more accidents than their Western counterparts.
Russia began working its Tu-22M3s hard over Syria in 2016. During one four week period, they flew at least 20 sorties from Russian bases to hit targets in Syria. That’s a lot of work for the ten or so Tu-22M3s in service that have to fly all the way from southern Russia to Syria and back to deliver a few tons of smart bombs. But the Tu-22M3 proved to be very good at it and this is the first sustained combat experience the Tu-22 has had since Afghanistan in the 1980s. Those first sorties in 2016 were more of a test than the start of regular operations over Syria. After all, these were old aircraft and expensive to maintain.
Since 2010 Russia has been preparing to upgrade 30 of its Tu-22M3 bombers to the Tu-22M3M standard and the first of these were supposed to have entered service in 2012. That did not happen on time but the air force did get Tu-22M3s with improved electronics that were able to deliver smart bombs and had in-flight refueling capabilities refurbished so they could be quickly restored. The 1970s START disarmament treaty was signed just as the Tu-22 was coming into service, with inflight refueling capability. But by removing the refueling probe in the front of the aircraft, but leaving the rest of the plumbing and electronics that supported refueling intact, the Tu-22M would not count as a strategic bomber. The M3M version makes it easier to just install the probe and regain inflight refueling capability. The current START treaty (it has been renewed twice), expires in 2021.
Other components of upgraded Tu-22M3 aircraft were refurbished as needed but the full upgrade and refurbishment were delayed. The plan was to complete the 30 M3M upgrades by 2020, but now it appears this will take several more years because only one full upgraded Tu-22M3M it flying and once it is checked out can the full upgrades for the other 29 Tu-22M3s proceed.
In 2002 Russia had over a hundred Tu-22M3 bombers in service. Or so it was claimed, as these aircraft had not flown much since 1991. 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 including two pilots, a bombardier and a 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 on internal fuel. The Tu-22M was roughly equivalent to the 45 ton American FB-111. Russia wanted to have a new bomber design in service by 2030, to replace the aging Tu-22M3Ms. That is not going to happen so the Tu-22M3Ms may need another refresh before it is retired.