The Russian Tu-160, The Largest Supersonic Bomber In History – So Far

Tupolev Tu-160 in flight over Russia (May 2014)
Tupolev Tu-160 in flight over Russia (May 2014)

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.

Photo Credit

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.

A Tu-160 with Ukrainian markings in 1997
A Tu-160 with Ukrainian markings in 1997. Photo Credit

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.

Tu-160 in flight, wings closed;
Tu-160 in flight, wings closed. Photo Credit

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.

Nikola Budanovic

Nikola Budanovic is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE