The Tu-160 heavyweight strategic bomber entered service in 1987 just four years before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and was one of a new generation of Soviet weapons along with R-37 missiles, T-95 tanks, Ulyanovsk Class supertankers and other assets that It was to have a significant strategic impact on the balance of power between the two blocs. While most of these programs were never completed, the Tu-160 was produced in limited numbers with the vast majority, an estimated 19 aircraft, stationed in Ukraine. The Tu-160 is still in service with the Russian Air Force today with production of a new advanced variant, the Tu-160M2, starting in early 2018 while older airframes have been raised to this modern standard. The bomber is widely considered to be the most capable bomber in the world, surpassing its American counterpart the B-1B Lancer in all and for the most part by a significant margin including nearly twice the range and payload, 65 percent more velocity and much higher weaponry. The Tu-160 remains one of Russia’s most powerful military assets, and has been used to project power around the world from precision strikes against jihadists in Syria to patrols over the Arctic and Indian Ocean and visits to airports in Venezuela and politically South Africa. critical times.
The Tu-160 is designed to target enemies at maximum ranges of 3,000 km, and the bomber flying over Moscow can engage targets in London 2,800 km away by deploying advanced variants of the Kh-55 missile. Combined with the long-range bomber, it provides Russia with effective global access to its aircraft, a capability that only the United States has. While today the Tu-160 is operated exclusively by the Russian Air Force, when Ukraine inherited the majority of the Soviet fleet in 1991, there was a high probability that the bombers would be sold to China, which had a great interest in modernizing its army by acquiring the latest Soviet weapons systems. Technologies that Ukraine otherwise passed on included missile technologies to enhance China’s strategic deterrence, an incomplete aircraft carrier that would become China’s first Liaoning aircraft carrier, and a prototype of the Su-27K/Su-33 air superiority fighter that would aid the development of the J-15 Flying Shark.
While China operated a large number of Tu-16 medium-range bombers, which were largely domestically produced and modernized such as the H-6, the country was interested in purchasing the Tu-160 which was to become its first and first heavy bomber. transcontinental range. The Ukrainian Tu-160 is not only set to enter Chinese service, but it is also very likely that it will be studied in detail, reverse engineered and indigenously produced by Chinese defense companies as a domestic variant possibly under the designation H-8. Had these bombers entered Chinese service, it is very likely that they would have been extensively upgraded and introduced into the field in greater numbers by China today, as has been the case with variants of the Su-27 Flanker air superiority fighter and with Tu-16 such as the H-6 due to China’s greater investment in research and development and a better funded defense sector.
Deploying the Tu-160 in large numbers to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is very likely to send the world’s most capable bomber fleet, especially since the closest competitor to the American B-2 has experienced a significant amount of performance issues and has seen serial production run 20 plane only. However, Western intervention, prompted by fears that advanced Soviet weapons being transferred to China would rapidly revolutionize the PLA’s capabilities, succeeded in preventing the sale of the Tu-160 to the East Asian country. The United States and its European allies moved to preempt the signing of a sale deal by Ukraine by providing the cash-strapped government of Kiev with funds to scrap the bomber fleet rather than selling it to China. Similar aid packages, combined with too much political pressure, have been used to force Ukraine to destroy its nuclear weapons or pass them on to Russia. Although lesser-known weapons made their way to China, this effectively thwarted the transfer of technologies for the world’s most advanced bombers to the People’s Liberation Army, which would have housed its fleet for several decades.
As a result of Western interference, the Chinese Air Force today still lacks an intercontinental range and is limited to engaging regional targets such as Guam and tanker groups in the South China Sea with its H-6 fleet. While this is set to change with the launch of the H-20 stealth bomber around 2025, the loss of an invaluable opportunity to acquire the Tu-160 set the Chinese bomber program back by many decades. Whether the H-20 will live up to the capabilities of Russia’s latest Tu-160, the Tu-160M2, remains unknown, but is considered likely due to the state of China’s defense sector. As China continues to produce the H-6 and modify bombers for other roles including electronic warfare, ballistic missile carrying and long-range ship hunting, it is very likely that Chinese variants of the Tu-160 have similarly been modified providing today’s PLA not only with Advanced strategic capabilities but also superior tactical capabilities to better defend its interests in the surrounding seas against the increasing Western military presence. In fact, a modified Tu-160 variant for ship fishing or short-range cruise missile strikes across the Pacific were an important asset without which the PLA is arguably worse off today.