'Bears' to 'Blackjacks' – A Possible Logical Progression?

By Sayan Majumdar


New Delhi, 31 March 2006

The Indian Navy has been offered Tupolev-22M3/MR strategic strike platforms to replace their ageing Tu-142 and Il-38 MRW aircraft. A detailed analysis shows that the Russian Tupolev-160 “Blackjack” offers several advantages over the offered aircraft, and may be available as the Navy’s requirement is small and Tu-160 production has restarted and additional funds will be welcome. The Russians on their part have never been hesitant to transfer strategic platforms to India.

Russian Tupolev-160 “Blackjack”

The Indian Navy acquired a strategic manned airborne dimension with the entry of Tupolev Tu-142M “Bear-F” Long Range Maritime Patrol/Anti-Submarine Warfare (LRMP/ASW) platforms in 1988. Powered by four KKBM Kuznetsov NK-12MV turboprops (each rated at 11,033-KW or 14,795-shp), with eight-blade contra-rotating reversible-pitch Type AV-60N propellers, the Tu-142M boasted a “near-conventional jet speed” of around 500-knots while still encompassing the whole Indian Ocean region from bases in South & Central India (INS Rajali and INS Hansa being more prominent) on internal fuel alone. Still an In-Flight Refuelling (IFR) probe is fitted above the nose and presently can summon the Indian Air Force (IAF) Agra-based Illyushin Il-78MKI IFR tankers of No.78 “Battle Cry” Squadron if situations arise.

While as primary sensors the Tu-142M platforms were fitted with the Korshun-K (Black Kite) automatic search and sighting system and MMS-106 Ladoga magnetometer to detect “stealthy” nuclear-powered submarines, the Indian Navy’s Tu-142M made foreign news headlines for its “Wet Eye” search and attack radar. The Australian Government presented strong reservations about the Tu-142M’s intended role in Indian Navy service, which to the Australian Government represented an Indian naval effort to expand its sphere of influence at the cost of Australia’s own. On top of these, matters did not help as rumours spread that the Indian Navy Tu-142M fleet represented a specialized variant, which in addition to LRMP/ASW gear and role retained sufficient gear to carry out a secondary heavy-bombing role.

This last mentioned aspect was never confirmed by Indian Navy sources and may or may not be a part of Island Continent’s political gimmick to enhance their own defence budget and spending. In any case a top speed of around 500-knots has only marginal effectiveness in penetration of well defended airspace yet integration of state-of-the-art Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCM) or Land Attack Cruise Missiles (LACM) may transform the “Albatross” into a formidable attack platform without the need to fly over its intended targets and yet decimate them at will from stand-off distances. Negotiations were reportedly made for additional procurement of six to eight more Tu-142M platforms but apparently fell apart after the tragic mid-air crash of a pair of Indian Navy IL-38s in October 2002, with priorities shifted in more ways than initially anticipated.

 Although various plans exist for upgrading the Tu-142M fleet to formidable LRMP/ASW platforms with Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) attributes, one platform presents an Israeli upgrade package that includes the proven Elta EL/M-2022A (V3) radar and associated ELINT, satellite communication and electronic warfare equipment. The Indian Navy was “looking beyond” LRMP/ASW platforms for effective operations in its sphere of influence and this was somewhat confirmed at the turn of millennium by persistent yet intermittent reports of the lease of Tu-22M3 (Backfire-C) multi-mission strike platforms, capable of performing low-level nuclear strike and conventional attack role both over land and sea alongside high-seed reconnaissance missions. In absence of official confirmation and shielded in misinformation or secrecy, the proposed airborne package as per Russian media reports includes leasing of three Tu-22M3 strategic bombing/maritime strike platforms, plus one Tu-22MR reconnaissance oriented platform with a giant Side Looking Airborne Radar (SLAR) in what was previously the internal bomb bay to enable aerial reconnaissance from a great slant distance. Also the package reportedly includes one Tu-134UBL with each of the mentioned type from Russian Air Forces register.

During the height of the Cold War, the Tu-22M remained one of the most controversial airborne platforms and contributed considerably to breakdown of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) II due to arguments as to whether to classify it as a strategic platform or not. Two Kuznetsov NK-25 turbofan engines provided Tu-22M a range of at least 7,000-km-plus at high altitude on internal fuel alone, with further extension possible with IFR. To complicate matters further the maximum speed was reported to be 2300-km/h at high altitude with 12-tons of strike ordnance or an alternative load of a single air launched cruise missile carried in semi-recessed form to reduce drag. Thus it was logically deduced by the US Administration that if air bases were made available in then South or Central American Marxist influenced Nations, the Tu-22M acquires the “strategic dimension” by conducting “one-way over Artic” missions against the United States homeland and thus should be regarded as a strategic platform. This logic was outright rejected by the Soviets for few practical reasons ultimately leading to breakdown of SALT II.

However in Soviet Dalnaya Aviatsiya (DA) or Long-Range Aviation and AV-MF or Naval Aviation service the Tu-22M did represent a formidable strike platform with the radar speculated to be of the missile guidance ‘Down Beat’ family in conjunction with one of the most formidable contemporary avionics and electronic warfare suites and were feared and respected by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) adversaries. Most of the electronic warfare suites were “flush mounted” so as not to hamper aerodynamic performance. During the height of Cold War the Tu-22M “Backfire” achieved further notoriety in NATO eyes for repeated simulated launch of cruise missiles against the NATO Aircraft-Carrier Battle Groups (CVBG) and penetrating the formidable Japanese air-defence network at will. These were bound to be carefully planned ELINT/ferret missions and tactics to test and record NATO Strike Fleet and Japanese air defence tactics and procedures. Operating from forward bases in the European Landmass the Soviet Tu-22Ms were active over North Atlantic as far as Azores, encompassing the whole European Landmass and were considered a significant threat to NATO surface ASW barriers in the key areas such as Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gaps.

Yet a thorough evaluation puts the Tu-22M “Backfire” along with the Sukhoi Su-24 “Fencer” in the category of “Cold War relics” as these one-time formidable and fearsome platforms underwent only limited upgradations after the “Cold War” era in sharp contrast of United States Air Force (USAF) operated strategic airborne platforms like B-1B and B-52G/H. Prominently apparent are certain inherent drawbacks in the area of Radar Cross Section (RCS) as the Tu-22M fuselage lines are largely copied from earlier Tu-22 “Blinder”, basically a "historic" design prior to “stealth consciousness”. While slab-sided fuselage and engine intakes present prominent RCS, the positioning of engine intakes occupies significant fuselage space reducing internal fuel loads and thus reducing the otherwise potential range. Also perhaps the entire avionics and electronic warfare suite need to be replaced with contemporary equipment to ensure survivability of these technologically ageing platforms in present high-threat environments.

The “significantly small” Indian Navy requirement of strategic combined maritime strike and reconnaissance platforms, justified in light of their deployment restricted over oceans and need not over fly integrated hostile enemy Air Defence (AD) system and missile network over land, makes even highly sophisticated and expensive designs approachable if operational benefits significantly overlap the financial and technical investment. In this context perhaps the optimally suitable maritime strike platform for Indian Navy resides in the Russian Tu-160 “Blackjack” supersonic strategic bomber, the true successor of Tu-95/142 “Bear” and the pride of the Russian Dalnaya Aviatsiya since reorganized to 37th Strategic Air Army comprising of the 22nd Guards Red Banner Donbass Heavy Bomber Division and the 79th Guards Heavy Bomber Division in May 1998. Both high-profile Divisions posses a mix of five regiments of nuclear and conventionally armed Tu-95MS6/MS16 “Bear” strategic bombers, single regiment of nuclear armed Tu-160 “Blackjack” strategic bombers plus four regiments of Tu-22M3 “Backfire” conventionally armed medium range bombers. Tu-160s by themselves equip the 121st Air Regiment based at Engels Air Force Base at Saratov region.

Tu-160 in contrast to Tu-22M represents a formidable state-of-the-art Fly-By-Wire (FBW) platform with 10,500-km inter-continental range with considerable weapons load estimated on a mission profile of subsonic high altitude cruise, followed by transonic penetration at low altitude on internal fuel alone. The IFR option is available for further enhancement of range. Russian Air Force Tu-160s repeatedly displayed their capability to operate over Indian Ocean during Indo-Russian Naval Exercises (INDRA) from Russian homeland and Central Asian Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) bases striking down dummy or notional targets with cruise missiles. On conceptual level, if operated from Indian bases the Indian Ocean “will fall under scanner” in totality along with adjoining territories of West Asia and Far East. 

In Tu-160 design, sufficient stresses have been given on reduction of RCS with the wing and fuselage gradually integrated into a single-piece configuration. The four NK-32 augmented turbofan engines, each providing a maximum thrust of 25,000-kg are installed in two pods under the shoulders of the wing with engine-intakes well shielded under fuselage to be screened from look-down radars. Measures were also applied to reduce the signature of the engines to infra-red and radar detectors. The Tu-160 avionics system consisting of navigation and attack radar and electronic countermeasures system will represent the pristine Russian technology after proposed upgradations, which are to follow alongside resumption of production lately for Russian 37th Strategic Air Army service. Even a limited export order for Indian Navy may evoke considerable interest as this is bound to “streamline” the re-opened production line to subsequently cater future Russian Air Force needs.

The Tu-160 in Indian Navy service may well be the perfect carrier (almost a made for each other) of the projected air-launched variant of supersonic (Mach 2.8) Indo-Russian PJ-10 BrahMos Anti-Ship Cruise Missile (ASCM) with smaller booster and additional tail fins for stability during launch, accommodating six of them on multi-station launchers in each of the two internal weapons bays. BrahMos ASCM is a joint venture between Indian DRDO and Russian NPO Mashinostroyeniya (NPO Mash) and inherits from its predecessor the Russian Yakhont ASCM, low RCS with an active radar homing seeker to facilitate fire-and-forget launch. Varieties of flight trajectories including sea-skimming or terminal pop-up followed by a deadly dive are meant to complicate the task of the adversary.

Mid-course guidance is inertial, developed and refined by Indian scientists. It is now an open secret that for further refinement of mid-course guidance the Indians are working hard at enhancing and refining the Inertial Navigation System (INS) with possible Israeli assistance that keeps track of the smallest change in velocity of the missile from its launch. In fact, if the warhead is nuclear tipped to cause wide-area destruction, the degree of accuracy delivered by INS is sufficient. Indians are believed to have obtained gyroscopes and other related items from European nations and are said to have successfully reverse-engineered them. Concurrently as a parallel development and as part of Alfa next-generation airborne reconnaissance and strike system, NPO Mash unveiled the Yakhont-M air-launched supersonic ASCM at the MAKS 2003 air show, which share elements with the Indo-Russian PJ-10 BrahMos. Armed with multi-sensor guidance, to engage surface ships and ground targets at up to 300-km, reconnaissance and target acquisition are to be provided by radar and electro-optical sensor equipped Kondor low-Earth-orbit satellites.

No wonder, BrahMos is rapidly emerging to be an enigma of sorts as numerous variants are being proposed or mooted simultaneously. The quest for a Brahmos LACM variant was hinted at in a test at Pokhran during December 2004, the missile being equipped with special image processing software for terminal homing and subsequently searched, located and destroyed a 50-cm thick concrete bunker with pinpoint accuracy. Although not officially stated, the special image processing software could well be a Digital Scene Matching Area Correlator (DSMAC) variant, which uses a zoom lens to collect images and matches them with the snaps of the approach to the target stored in the memory, to conduct precision strikes against an array of enemy counter-force and counter-value targets ranging from airfields to overland communications, command and control centres and powerful air defence installations.

There is considerable speculation that the ultimate BrahMos variant could emerge as tri-service sub-sonic or transonic LACM variant with an estimated range of 800-km to 1,400-km with Global Positioning System (GPS) guidance backup. Such a formidable missile system will offer considerable stand-off distance to every launch platform and will enable Indian Navy airborne LRMP/ASW and strike platforms to execute their operational roles without having to enter hostile airspace or engage enemy AD systems. Looking from a pure technological standpoint, Tu-160 “Blackjack” in Indian Navy colours will effectively eclipse other airborne strategic and sub-strategic platforms “in the vicinity” like Chinese Peoples Liberation Army-Air Force (PLA-AF) operated H-6 (Tu-16) bombers and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) F-111 strike fighters and only be competitive with USAF B-2 Spirit platforms occasionally based in Diego Garcia.

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