Russia’s new fifth-generation bomber project has been put on the back burner and the plane won’t enter production for nearly a decade, Zachary Keck reports for the National Interest citing Russian officials.
The Kremlin planned on introducing its fifth-generation PAK DA bomber into service starting in 2023. However, the PAK DA project has been pushed back and Russia will instead focus on production of an updated version of the Soviet-era Tu-160 supersonic nuclear bomber.
“According to the plans, serial production of the [Tu-160] aircraft new version [the Tu-160M2] is to be implemented starting from 2023,” Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yuri Borisov said at a press conference on July 17. “The PAK DA project will be somewhat shifted beyond , otherwise there is no sense in it.”
According to Russia Beyond the Headlines, the decision to begin constructing the updated Tu-160M2 at the expense of the fifth-generation PAK DA was made by Russian President Vladimir Putin in May.
“[Putin] and the Russian defence minister have taken a decision on reviving production of the Tu-160M aircraft,” Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Air Force, General Viktor Bondarev said in May.
This decision to stall the development of the PAK DA and instead focus on the modernization of the Tu-160 reflects the broader difficulties that the Kremlin is facing in modernising the country’s military. Economic sanctions stemming from Russia’s aggressive policies in Ukraine and a plunge in oil prices have undercut the Russian economy, leading to defence procurement problems across the military as a whole.
“The objective reasons for the failure to meet state defence procurement orders include restrictions on the supply of imported parts and materials in connection with sanctions, discontinuation of production and the loss of an array of technologies, insufficient production facilities,” Borisov said on July 17 according to The Moscow Times.
According to the National Interest, this decision to modernize the Tu-160 in conjunction with Russia’s economic distress could ultimately lead to the complete abandonment of the PAK DA. The improvements that the new TU-160M2 will feature include many designs that were intended for the PAK DA, and the modernised aircraft is “also expected to have a service life of around 40 years.”
Among the upgrades for the TU-160M2 are a newly modernised engine that will increase the plane’s flight range by over 600 miles, along with several new missiles that will enhance the plane’s combat capabilities, IHS Jane’s 360 notes.
“This will be essentially a new aeroplane, not a Tu-160 but a Tu-160M2,” Borisov said in early June. “According to the plans, this will most likely happen sometime after 2023.”
This isn’t the only recent instance of Russia having to scale back on its military modernization ambitions. The Kremlin is also having problems financing its hulking third-generation Armata tank. Harvard scholar Dmitry Gorenburg estimates that Russia will only be able to field a maximum of 330 Armata tanks by 2020, a fraction of the 2,300 originally planned.
The Kremlin’s failure to follow through on projections for high-end weaponry is a common theme. There’s a pattern of Russia announcing colossal projects before drastically scaling back its plans. In March, for example, Kremlin media outfit RT announced that Russia would eventually be able to deploy 80 massive PAK TA transport superplanes — even though Russia not having constructed a single prototype of the aircraft.
In scaling back the Armata and these two advanced aircraft, the Kremlin clearly realises that it is significantly easier and more cost efficient to continue to modify existing systems for future use — even if that isn’t as exciting from a propaganda standpoint.
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