B-1B Bone Vs Tu-160 Blackjack: Equal or Not?
The opportunity to make an objective comparison between the Blackjack (as the Tupolev Tu-160 is coded by NATO) and the Bone (the B-1B’s nickname deriving from “B-One”) of the two vivid types arose. presented on September 23. On December 25, 1994, when the Tu-160 and B-1B “rubbed noses” (fortunately not literally) for the first time at Poltava AB in Ukraine during the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Operation Frantic (the raids of shuttles against Germany), for which the USAF sent a large delegation. The flight and ground crews of both bombers had the opportunity to examine each other’s aircraft and form their opinions.
As Yefim Gordon and Dmitriy Komissarov explain in their book Tupolev Tu-160, Soviet Strike Force Spearhead, the Blackjack has an advantage in offensive capability to some extent — its main weapon, the Kh-55SM cruise missile, is well mastered by both industry and bomber crews, as well as Kh-555 and Kh-101/Kh-102 cruise missiles. Conversely, the Americans were unable to adapt the B-1B to take the expensive AGM-86B due to budgetary constraints – this would require not only modifying the bomb bays, but also significantly modifying the avionics suite. The AGM-69A had to be removed from inventory in 1994, as the missile stock had reached the end of its service life and the solid propellant had begun to decay. This left the B-1B with only the B61 and B83 free-fall nukes (although a small number of B28 nukes remained available in 1996). Beginning in 1996, the USAF had planned to integrate the General Dynamics AGM-129A (ACM) advanced cruise missile on the B-1B. The Boeing AGM-131A (SRAM II) was also proposed but was canceled in September 1991. Later, however, the B-1B was upgraded in stages (called blocks) to carry new weapons – the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) guided bomb, the Wind Corrected Munitions Dispenser (WCMD), the Raytheon AGM-154 Joint Stand-off Weapon (JSOW) and the Lockheed Martin AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Stand-off Munition) , greatly improving his offensive aptitude. The Lockheed Martin Sniper external laser targeting pod was incorporated into the B-1 fleet in 2007. Improvements were also made to the defensive avionics suite, including the addition of the ALE-50 towed decoy system, and radios anti-jamming have been installed.
As for conventional ammunition, the Lancer did not receive a conventional capability until after the first Gulf War (it is true that live weapons testing began in 1991, but the scale upgrade of the fleet arrived too late for the action). Conversely, the Tu-160 was to have conventional capability from the start, hence the inclusion of the OPB-15T electro-optical sight in the targeting suite; on the other hand, he never used free-fall bombs.
The approach to carrying weapons is also different. The B-1B has three weapons bays (two forward of the wing pivot housing and one aft), while the Tu-160 has two larger bays. Additionally, the Lancer has provisions for carrying missiles on six external hardpoints under the forward, center and rear fuselage, whereas on the Blackjack all armament is carried internally. This helps reduce the bomber’s RCS and reduce drag, thereby increasing range – although this also explains the Tu-160’s larger size.
As for avionics and equipment, the B-1B would apparently impose itself thanks to its avionics suite which includes a Westinghouse AN/ALQ-161 synthetic aperture radar and a complete defensive suite. According to press reports, Russian and Ukrainian pilots described the Lancer’s flight instrumentation as excellent; the cockpit includes an electronic flight instrumentation system as opposed to the Tu-160’s conventional mechanical instruments. In terms of crew comfort and cockpit ergonomics, the two aircraft are about equal, although the B-1B’s cockpit offers slightly less headroom, being encroached by down through the front wheel well.
The Russian military and many world aviation experts believe that the combination of performance and design features of the Tu-160 theoretically gives it an advantage over the B-1B and other American bombers, including the stealth B -2A – but the theory is one. thing and real life is another. First, the B-1 B was already well mastered when the Tu-160 crews were just beginning to master the aircraft and were hampered by numerous restrictions. Then, due to a persistent lack of funding, the Russian Air Force had operational problems with its bomber fleet and suffered fuel shortages in the 1990s. This, in turn, caused created the problem of providing enough flight hours for crews; maintaining proficiency was a painful issue for Russian airmen. For example, Bone and Blackjack both have IFR capability; however, B-1B pilots practiced air-to-air refueling almost weekly, something their Russian colleagues could only dream of. In the 21st century, the situation began to improve for Tu-160 crews, with fuel readily available and plenty of drills to hone their skills.
From the point of view of operational reliability, the two types are broadly similar. Both had their share of powertrain and avionics reliability issues.
Here is the opinion of former 37th VA Commander Lt.-Gen. Mikhail M. Oparin:
“I have deep respect for the people who charted the prospects for long-range aviation development in the 1980s/early 1990s. The structural strength reserves and upgrade potential of strategic bombers Tu-95MS and Tu-160 allow them to be called aircraft of the 21st century, and for good reason – missile strike aircraft still have unused potential, these bombers are not only up to the best Western equipment , but the excellent in some respects. I know what I’m saying because I had the opportunity to study first hand the strategic aircraft of our “friends and rivals”. I had the opportunity to fly a real B-52, and I made several flights in the B-1 simulator; after that, I was delighted with the Tu-9SMS and especially the Tu-I60.
It would be best to conclude with the following words from former Russian Air Force C-in-C Army General Pyotr S. Deynekin:
“What do you best compare the ‘Il’ya Muromets’ (the Tu-160 – Auth.) to? The Tu-95? Or maybe the An-124? (The An-124 is the heaviest operational military transport aircraft in the world – Auth.) I guess the correct answer is the B-1B Lancer, the American counterpart of the Tu-160. In May 1992, I made three flights in a B-1B over the Nevada desert, flying the bomber from the left seat, with several reloads from a KC-135 tanker. I have a commemorative photo signed by USAF bomber wing commanders. I dare say that they are both good planes and worthy rivals – as, for that matter, are the men who fly them. That’s why we’d better be friends than foes, and Americans know that.
Tupolev Tu-160 Soviet Strike Force Spearhead is published by Schiffer Publishing and can be ordered here.
Photo credit: US Air Force, Dmitry Terekhov of Odintsovo, Russian Federation and Alex Beltyukov via Wikipedia
Top image: (L) Tu-160 © REUTERS/Grigory Dukor; (R) B-1B Lancer © Christopher Quail/Handout via REUTERS via RT