Russian aerospace and defense company Tupolev have released a statement announcing the first prototypes of their modernized Tu-22M3M supersonic bomber (a variant of the Tu-22 and a step up from the Tu-22M3) will begin production on August 16, 2018 – so yesterday. Testing is expected to begin soon and the first flight has been scheduled for the third quarter of the year, reports Russian news agency Interfax.
What will these new upgrades mean? Well, according to news sources in Russia, the refurbished planes will be capable of holding weapon loads of 22 tonnes (24 tons) and reaching cruise speeds of 900 kilometers (560 miles) per hour. The enhancements will also boost operational life and extend their range to 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles) without the need to stop and refuel.
The reports have said the bombers will come with a whole range of new combat capabilities, including a double-barreled GSH-23 gun in the tail turrets and the space to carry up to three Kh-32 or 12 Rhaduga Kh-15 aero-ballistic missiles, both of which can be equipped with nuclear or conventional warheads. The Kh-32 missiles are the latest version of the Kh-22 and are built to hit US Navy carrier groups but can also be used to execute land strikes. They are said to have an operational range of 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), as well as a max speed of Mach 4 (equivalent to 4939 kilometers or 3,069 miles per hour) during their terminal phase.
The engineers will also be adding modern avionics, a new communications suite, a more precise weapons control system, and digital radio navigation tools, reports The Diplomat. What's more, according to Russia's long-range aviation commander, Sergey Kobylash, the planes will be getting a very 21st-century update – artificial intelligence. (Though details on what exactly this AI technology will do is a bit sketchy and, as always, it is worth taking these claims with a little pinch of salt.)
The first plane is expected to start service in the Russian Air Force in October but as many as 30 Tu-22M3 bombers could be upgraded to the Tu-22M3M model. These 11-meter-tall (36-foot), 42-meter-long (139-foot) aircraft are a variant of the Tu-22, first deployed in the 1950s. There have been several upgrades since the Tu-22 first launched but the Tu-22M3M will be the first since the Tu-22M3 upgrade in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down and two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
While hearing about new military equipment like this can sound quite unnerving, it is simply yet another case of Russia engaging in a bit of saber-rattling.