Warplanes: Russian Bomber Engine Blues


November 27, 2020: Russia claims that it has finally completed modernization of at least one of its 17 elderly Cold-War era Tu-160 heavy bombers. The primary obstacle to completing this long-delayed Tu-160 modernization was the new NK-32-02 engine. Getting that new engine to work reliably turned out to be more difficult than anticipated. That is not unusual as the Russian jet engine industry has had problems with several different commercial and military engine designs that sought to match the performance of Western engines. Thus it was suspicious that the Russians did not release a photo of the Tu-160 with the new engines since a photo would show if the Tu-160 had four NK-32-02s or, for the sake of safety, only one or two.

Questionable new engine tech is one of several reasons why Russia is discovering that reviving the quality and diversity of their Soviet era air force is becoming unachievable because the money, and the talent, is simply not there and is unlikely to be available in the foreseeable future. This became obvious during the effort to revive their heavy bomber fleet. In early 2016 the government was still confident they could start production of a much-improved Tu-160 and refurbish the few original ones still flying. By 2017 defense officials admitted that the 2016 plan was not going to work and for the usual reasons; not enough money and inability to manufacture all the high-tech components, especially engines, needed. The money shortage was easy to understand but the talent shortage was somewhat unique to Russia.

During the Soviet period Russia was very much a dictatorship with literally everyone, and every aspect of their lives, subject to the “needs of the state.” That meant Russia could order the most talented engineers, scientists and production specialists to work on weapons. These chosen ones received benefits that made life easier and that worked for a few generations until it didn’t. After the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991 Russia underwent a second “freeing of the serfs” (the first was in the 1860s). People were free to move around, leave the country and seek better jobs wherever they could. Russian defense industries have still not recovered from the shock of losing so much of their talent. After that there were far more attractive non-defense jobs for talented people and the defense industries could not compete.

With the talent shortage in mind, the 2016 heavy bomber plan tried to deal with this new situation with a more realistic approach. The plan was mainly about building fifty of a much-upgraded Tu-160 called the Tu-160M2. The first one of these was supposed to fly in 2019. The major improvements were the electronics plus less extensive mechanical upgrades to make the aircraft easier to maintain and extend its useful life (in terms of flight hours). This included efforts to make the engines more efficient and reliable. The first 160M2 could not enter service until each aircraft could replace its four older engines with four NK-32-02s.

This is the third attempt to revive Tu-160 production. Back in 2006 fourteen new aircraft were to be built. That plan was canceled in 2013 with the admission that it was too expensive. Instead a new heavy bomber design (the PAK-DA) was to be developed and put into service by the late 2020s. This was driven by the fact that existing Tu-160s were getting old and thus more expensive to maintain. It was soon discovered that the PAK-DA would be too expensive as well and difficult to get into service before the existing Tu-160s had to be retired. Desperate for a solution and faced with growing economic problems, a new Tu-160 plan was devised.

The Tu-160M2 is described as looking similar to existing Tu-160s but being the equivalent of a new bomber design because of all the improvements. Officials describe the M2 model as very different from the original and much more effective. But the 2017 plan delayed introduction of the M2 model until the mid-2020s and possibly with fewer than fifty being built. This is risky because enough M2s have to be built to deal with the cost of rebuilding assembly plants and manufacturing (and developing) key components, like engines. Russia has always had problems with high-performance military jet engines.

Aside from prestige, the existing Tu-160s are believed worth replacing because Russia has discovered that such an aircraft provides some unique options. For example, back in 2010 two Tu-160s made a record 23 hour long, 18,000-kilometer flight around the periphery of Russia. This required two in-flight refuelings from Il-78 tankers. This feat was nothing new. Back in 2009, a Tu-160 completed a 21-hour flight across the country. In 2008 and 2013 pairs of Tu-160s flew from Russia to Venezuela.

Although designed as a heavy bomber, the Tu-160 has largely been used, in the last few years, as a long-range reconnaissance aircraft meant more to intimidate than gather information. But even in that role the Tu-160 can still carry cruise missiles and other air-to-ground weapons. In an emergency the Tu-160s can be sent long distances to deliver tons of smart bombs and guided missiles. Given the vast size of Russia, this extraordinary range is seen as the one real military function of the Tu-160.

A key reason for cancelling production of new Tu-160s in 2013 was the inability to obtain affordable engines. The engine manufacturer pointed out that they needed more orders than those for 14 new aircraft in order to keep the Tu-160 engine manufacturing going at a profitable, and affordable to the air force, rate. In 2011 the Russian Air Force found that they could not order enough Tu-160 replacement engines to keep the engine factory going and even producing 14 new aircraft did not solve that problem. For current aircraft the air force only needed about five NK-32 engines a year. Each Tu-160 is fitted with four of these 3.5-ton engines. Most of these engines were built in the 1980s and 90s and have been overhauled several times. After a while these engines cannot be refurbished anymore and that's why some new ones were needed. But the manufacturer insisted the smallest economical annual production was twenty engines. Otherwise, the price per engine for five a year would be more than the government was willing to pay.

One solution was to increase the number of Tu-160s in service. All of the newly manufactured Tu-160s would need engines, and with more Tu-160s in service the engine factory would get enough orders to make it economically worthwhile to themselves and the air force. Now the air force planners seem to have sorted out the needs of the engine manufacturer by ordering fifty new Tu-160M2s. The 200 NK-32-02 engines needed for those aircraft plus replacement engines for existing Tu-160s means the manufacturer is assured more than a decade of profitable production. This provides cash for improving the quality and life span of the engines. But like many clever plans the Tu-160M2 effort is unravelling. Then the engine manufacturer reported that there were problems with the new NK-32-02s, which were an improved version of the Cold War era NK-32. Now that problem appears to be solved. Maybe,

The Tu-160 "Blackjack" is very similar to the 216-ton American B-1B but the Russian aircraft never really lived up to its potential. Still, it is the most modern heavy bomber the Russians have. It's a 267-ton aircraft that can carry up to 40 tons of bombs and missiles for up to 12,000 kilometers. The aircraft can refuel in the air. It originally entered service in 1987, and was built mainly to deliver cruise missiles.

Noting the success of the B-1 using smart bombs in Afghanistan, the Tu-160s were modified to do the same, in addition to retaining their cruise missile carrying capability. The upgrade to the Tu-160M2 standard was to take about 18 months and cost $35 million per aircraft. The new model has to have more reliable engines, some stealth capability because of radar absorbing material on the exterior, and improved electronics, including the ability to use just about every aircraft missile in the Russian arsenal. Upgrades of the first three Tu-160s began in 2013, and all upgrades of all ten are to be completed by the end of 2015. Now its 2020 and all aspects of the upgrade are supposed to be working.

The first Tu-160 was built in the early 1980s and 35 were built before production stopped in 1994 because of a money shortage. Most of those 35 have been retired or scrapped. When production of the Tu-160 ceased in 1994 several of them were partially completed. Apparently, the first of the "new" aircraft is one of those left uncompleted in the 1990s. Lots of Russian weapons factories were shut down after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. That occurred, in part, because the Soviet Union was, literally, bankrupt. The defense budget was cut by more than two-thirds and weapons production got hurt the most. The only plants that kept operating were those producing items for export. But many of the shuttered factories were preserved and now many of them are in operation again, picking up where they left off. But the revived firms do not have the pick of design, management, and skilled worker talent. All the best people are working at more lucrative commercial firms. But now Russia sees the fifty Tu-160M2s as a way to help the entire Russian aircraft industry and keep the heavy bomber force viable into the 2030s, if the engine problems can be fixed and stay fixed.


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