In 1972 the strange story of the Tu-160 began when it won a competition for the first Soviet supersonic bomber. It was nicknamed the White Swan, due to its white paint and aerodynamic shape. The Tupolev design competed against the M-18 and the Sukhoi T-4, the latter of which was made the same year but failed to fill the role of a strategic bomber.
The Soviet government gave the green light for the Tu-160. It was constructed and tested during the next decade, becoming one of the most iconic aircraft of the Russian Air Force and is still in service today.
The Tu-160 prototype was finished in 1981 and went into production three years later. The design was bold for the time. Implementing the variable-sweep wing system on an aircraft of such size was indeed an engineering endeavor worthy of a military superpower.
The aircraft is claimed to be the largest, most powerful supersonic bomber to date. The Tu-160 achieves speeds of 2 Machs and is powered by four Kuznetsov NK-32 afterburning turbofans, which are the most powerful engines ever to be fitted on an aircraft.
The supersonic bomber’s wingspan ranges from a 20° to a 65° sweep, or from 35.60 m (116 ft 9¾ in) to 55.70 m (189 ft 9 in). The White Swan bomber is 54.10 m (177 ft 6 in) long. It requires a crew of four; a pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, and defensive systems operator.
Its armament is a devastating arsenal of 20,000 kg (44,400 lb) of free-fall weapons, with a maximum carrying capacity twice that amount. The bomber also incorporates a rotary launcher for a nuclear missile installed in the bomb bay, with optional additional missiles carried externally.
Following its production in 1984, the plane waited a long time and overcame many difficulties before gaining combat action. It was deployed in a war zone for the first time recently, during the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015, where it continues to serve in bombing operations.
Nineteen out of thirty-five Tu-160s were located at the Pryluky military airport. As the Soviet Union dissolved at the end of the 1980s, a newly founded Ukrainian state claimed all Red Army weaponry on its soil. The White Swan bombers became part of their arsenal.
The Russian Army wanted to reclaim the bombers, but the Ukrainians saw the opportunity to use them as a negotiation tool. After several failed attempts between the Government of Ukraine and the Russian Federation, a deal was struck in 1999, to return the eight airworthy Tu-160s to Russia. In exchange, a part of the Ukrainian gas debt was written off.
Since then the fleet of White Swan bombers has continuously grown and now number sixteen. The Tu-160s are constantly being modernized and upgraded. Some of the new features include an advanced radio-electronic warfare system, which is highly effective against anti-aircraft missiles and a new generation of cloaking devices, that should make the aircraft invisible to radar detection.