Tupolev Tu-22M Medium Range Bomber of Russia – Backfire-For Truly Strategic Missions

Tupolev Tu-22M is a supersonic, variable sweep wing, long range strategic and maritime strike bomber developed by Tupolev Design Bureau of Russia.

Tupolev Tu-22M
Tupolev Tu-22M

The Tupolev Tu-22M (Western reporting name Backfire) was developed from the earlier Tu-22 design, incorporating variable-geometry outer wing panels. Even though it is designated as “improved” version of the Tupolev Tu-22, it had so many differences that the Tu-22M can be seen as a completely different and much more capable aircraft. The first Tu-22M0 prototype flew in 1969.

It was powered by a military derivative of the engine, originally designed for the Tu-144 supersonic airliner (Soviet copy of the Concorde). The Tupolev Tu-22M is extremely fast, even at low level. It was mainly intended to engage US carrier battle groups. However this bomber lacks sufficient range for truly strategic missions and is classified as a medium-range bomber.

   Currently Russian Air Force is the only operator of the Tu-22M series aircraft. It operates just over 60 of improved Tu-22M3 bombers. Though their serviceability rate is around 50% or even lower. It is planned that some of these warplanes will be upgraded to a new Tu-22M3M standard until 2020. Still though the Tu-22M remains a formidable bomber. In 2008 it and saw action in Georgia and since 2015 it is occasionally used in Syria.

   The Tu-22M0 prototypes and pre-production aircraft followed by the early Tu-22M1 version. It was known in the West as Backfire-A. However only 9 of these bombers were ever built in 1971 and 1972, until production switched to improved model.

   The first series production model was the Tu-22M2 (Western reporting name Backfire-B). It had longer wings and redesigned fuselage. This bomber was powered by two NK-22 engines with 215 kN of trust each. Production of this model commenced in 1972. This bomber made its first flight in 1973 and was oficially adopted in 1976.

During the same year the Tu-22M2 demonstrated a range of around 7 000 km with a single in-flight refueling. So even though this bomber lacked range for strategic missions, and could not reach the United States, its in-flight refueling capability extended its range significantly. However in 1991 Soviets signed a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START 1) which forced the to delete in-flight refueling probes on all Tu-22M series bombers.

The Tu-22M2 became operational in 1978. This bomber was produced until 1983. A total of 211 of these aircraft were built for the Soviet Air Forces and the Naval Aviation. It served during the Soviet War in Afghanistan. This bomber was normally armed with a single Kh-22 nuclear-tipped stand-off missile and was intended to engage US carrier battle groups. The T-22M2 was plagued with various problems, still though Soviets actively used these bombers.

   The ultimate bomber/missile carrying variant was the Tu-22M3 (Western reporting name Backfire-C). It made its first flight in 1977 and its production commenced in 1978. The “M3” features strengthened wings, raked rectangular intakes serving more powerful NK-25 engines. It also had a greatly increased weapons load (see specification).

This bomber could carry up to three Kh-22 missiles. Initial production aircraft (or interim aircraft) used a number of readily available components of the Tu-22M2, such as wigs and avionics. The Tu-22M3 in its real form was adopted only in 1989. It was produced until 1993. A total 268 of these aircraft were built. The Tu-22M3 remains numerically the most important bomber in the Russian air force’s Long-Range Air Army inventory, and serves with seven regiments (one of of these regiments also operates Tu-22M2s).

The Naval Aviation Forces had about 80 Tu-22Ms, mostly M3 models, split equally between divisions subordinated to the Northern and Pacific Fleets. The Naval Aviation Forces also had 12 M3s converted as Tu-22MR reconnaissance aircraft, and reportedly also operates limited numbers of recce-configured Tu-22M2Rs. In 2011 all Naval Aviation’s Tu-22M3 were transferred to the Russian Air Force.

   Because of delays in the development of the Sukhoi T-60, the intended replacement of the Tu-22M3, it has been decided to embark on a major upgrade of the Backfire. The Tu-22M2/M3s of both the Air Force and Naval Aviation will be upgraded to Tu-22M3M standard, with a new radar, new missile systems and an automatic terrain-following capability.

This upgraded version will be capable of carrying new precision strike missiles, such as new Kh-32 long-range cruise missile. It was planned the the first Tu-22M3M will make its first flight in 2018. Also it was planned that a total of 30 airframes will be upgraded to this standard by 2020, although exact number was not confirmed.

   Russia was also trialling small numbers of redundant Tu-22M3 airframes converted as Tu-22MP prototypes of a planned electronic warfare/escort jammer variant.

   The sole non-Russian operator of the Backfire was Ukraine. This country gained former Soviet Black Sea Fleet Naval Aviation regiments of Tu-22M2/M3s. Around 50-60 Ukrainian bombers equipped three air force heavy bomber regiments. However these bombers were gradually retired from the Ukrainian service. All surviving Ukrainian Tu-22M3 bombers were retired by 2003 and were scrapped in 2006.

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