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The Tupolev Tu-160 Beliy Lebed (or White Swan, Russian: Туполев Ту-160, NATO reporting name: Blackjack) is a supersonic, variable-sweep wing heavy strategic bomber designed by the Tupolev Design Bureau in the Soviet Union. Although several civil and military transport aircraft are larger in overall dimensions, the Tu-160 is the world's largest combat aircraft, largest supersonic aircraft and largest variable-sweep aircraft built. Only the North American XB-70 Valkyrie had higher empty weight and maximum speed. The Tu-160 has the heaviest take off weight of any military aircraft besides transports.
Entering service in 1987, the Tu-160 was the last strategic bomber designed for the Soviet Union. The Long Range Aviation branch of the Russian Air Force has 16 aircraft with fewer in active use. The Tu-160 active fleet has been undergoing upgrades to electronics systems since the early 2000s. The Tu-160M modernisation programme has begun with the first new updated aircraft delivered in December 2014.
The first competition for a supersonic strategic heavy bomber was launched in the Soviet Union in 1967. In 1972, the Soviet Union launched a new multi-mission bomber competition to create a new supersonic, variable-geometry ("swing-wing") heavy bomber with a maximum speed of Mach 2.3, in response to the US Air Force B-1 bomber project. The Tupolev design, dubbed Aircraft 160M, with a lengthened blended wing layout and incorporating some elements of the Tu-144, competed against the Myasishchev M-18 and the Sukhoi T-4 designs.
Work on the new Soviet bomber continued despite an end to the B-1A and in the same year, the design was accepted by the government committee. The prototype was photographed by an airline passenger at a Zhukovsky Airfield in November 1981, about a month before the aircraft's first flight on 18 December 1981. Production was authorized in 1984, beginning at Kazan Aircraft Production Association.
Like many Soviet weapon systems, the Tu-160 struggled to overcome unreliable components and a lack of maintenance during the 1990s. The original systems were faulty and required major rework using up-to-date computer chip and circuit boards. The modernised aircraft were then accepted into Russian service again after testing in late 2005. The upgrade also integrated the ability to launch two new conventional versions of the long-range Kh-55 nuclear cruise missile - the Kh-101 and Kh-555. Although Russia has overstated the progress of the modernisation project, it seems that the project has been restricted by the lack of up-to-date facilities to keep aircraft flying. This resulted in the delivery of a new-build aircraft but the "first modernised Tu-160" in July 2006 did not receive new avionics, although they were planned for the new airframe.
The modernisation appears to be split into two phases, concentrating on life extension with some initial communication–navigation updates, followed by 10 aircraft receiving new engines and capability upgrades after 2016. The first refitted aircraft was delivered to the VVS in May 2008; a follow-up contract to overhaul three aircraft in 2013 cost RUR3.4 billion (US$103m). The first updated M-model Tu-160 was delivered in December 2014. Although the phase I update was due to be completed by 2016, industrial limitations may delay it to 2019 or beyond. Although Kuznetsov designed an NK-32M engine with improved reliability over the troublesome NK-32 engines, its successor company has struggled to deliver working units. Metallist-Samara JSC had not produced new engines for a decade when it was given a contract in 2011 to overhaul 26 of the existing engines, by two years later, only four were finished. Ownership and financial issues hinder the prospects of a new production line; the firm insists it needs a minimum of 20 engines ordered per year but the government is only prepared to pay for 4-6 engines per year. A further improved engine has been bench tested and may enter production in 2016 or later.
On 29 April 2015, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was quoted as saying that Russia was resuming production of the Tu-160. On 28 May 2015 the Russian news agency TASS: Russia reported that the Russian Air Force will purchase at least 50 new-build Tu-160s and that production of the aircraft will restart at the Kazan aviation plant. General Viktor Bondarev has said that development of the PAK DA will continue alongside resumption of production of the older model bomber.