Russia is developing a new strategic bomber called the PAK-DA as part of its post-Soviet military modernization plan, but with the price of oil falling rapidly, there are questions as to whether that nation will be able to afford the new plane.
There is little concrete information about the new Russian bomber—but a stealthy long-range penetrating strike aircraft is not cheap. The Pentagon’s secretive new Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) program is aiming to develop an aircraft that will cost roughly $550 million per jet. Developmental costs for the American aircraft—which will supposedly rely on “mature” technologies--are likely to be in $50 billion range. While the Russia PAK-DA is not likely to be nearly as expensive, it is going to cost tens of billions of dollars at a time when Russia’s resource-based economy is collapsing into what could be a prolonged recession. Unlike the Soviet Union—which had a more or less full-service, if dysfunctional, economy—modern Russia is little more than a glorified petro-state. There are very real questions as to whether Russia can afford to complete the development of the PAK-DA.
Nonetheless, Russia’s Tupolev design bureau appears to be moving full steam ahead with the development of the new aircraft. Mikhail Pogosyan, head of the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC)—a state enterprise that includes Tupolev—told RIA Novosti, a state-run Russian new agency (now known internationally as Sputnik International), earlier in the year that development of the PAK-DA had started in earnest in 2014. Pogosyan said that preliminary design work for the new aircraft was completed in April 2014 and some components are already being fabricated.
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The PAK-DA is expected to make its first flight in 2019. Russia is expected to complete operational testing of the new jet in 2023—which puts the timeline for the new bomber slightly ahead of the U.S. Air Force’s LRS-B, which is expected to become operational in the mid-2020s. “The maiden flight should be performed in 2019. State tests and supplies will be completed in 2023,” Russian Air Force commander Lt. Gen. Viktor Bondarev told RIA Novosti in May.
The PAK-DA is expected to become fully operational in 2025 according to earlier statements attributed to Maj. Gen. Anatoly Zhikharev, commander of the Russian Air Force’s long-range aviation fleet by the news agency.
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In order to get the PAK-DA operational as quickly as possible, Russia is using modernized versions of the Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack supersonic strategic bombers’ Kuznetsov NK-32 engines to power the new aircraft. Selecting a suitable power plant is perhaps the single most important decision engineers have to make when developing a new aircraft. Indeed, it is likely that the Boeing/Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman teams that are developing rival LRS-B concepts are facing a similar decision on selecting an appropriately mature engine for their bomber designs.
Originally, according to Russian media reports, the PAK-DA was intended to use a variant of the Saturn AL-41F engine, a version of which powers the fifth-generation Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA stealth fighter. That AL-41 variant ran into developmental problems, which forced Tupolev’s engineers to switch over to the NK-32. “The NK-32 engine, which is at the core of the Tu-160, will be subjected to a number of technical changes and improvements, and will be installed in the PAK-DA,” a JSC Kuznetsov official told Russia & India Reportin November. “This new engine will be based on the second stage HK-32 unified gas generator.”
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Like its American LRS-B counterpart, few concrete details have been released about the PAK-DA. What is known about the new bomber is that the PAK-DA will likely be a stealthy subsonic flying wing design optimized to fly over long distances while remaining undetected. Flying wings lend themselves well to low observable characteristics—particularly against low frequency radars operating in the UHF and VHF bands. But there remain questions about Russia’s ability to manufacture a stealth aircraft even if the country can design such a machine. Stealth aircraft require a level of manufacturing precision that neither Russia nor the Soviet Union has ever previously demonstrated.
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The PAK-DA design is a break from previous Russian bomber designs like the Tupolev Tu-22M Backfire and Tu-160, both of which rely on high supersonic speeds for survivability. The PAK-DA is also not a small aircraft—with a maximum gross take-off weight of about 250,000 lbs—about the size of a Boeing 757 airliner. According to Russia & India Report, Russian Air Force’s requirements state that the bomber will have a range of 6,740 nautical miles. It will also be able to carry 60,000lbs of weapons.
Though the PAK-DA is likely going to be a very low observable aircraft, like other new Russian combat aircraft such as the PAK-FA fighter, the new bomber does not entirely rely solely on its stealth for survivability. Stealth appears to be just one tool in the PAK-DA’s bag of tricks. The aircraft is also being developed with advanced electronic warfare systems according to RIA Novosti—and Russian jammers are nothing short of excellent according to U.S. Air Force sources.
Further, the PAK-DA will be armed with both stand-off nuclear and conventional cruise missiles, according to RIA Novosti. Russia is investing in hypersonic cruise missiles to arm the PAK-DA, which suggests that the Russian Air Force does not necessarily intend for the aircraft to penetrate deep into hostile airspace. The bomber needs to merely get close enough to launch its missiles. Relying on long-range missiles would be keeping with long established Soviet and Russian practice. “PAK-DA will be equipped with all advanced types of precision guided weapons, including hypersonic,” a Russian government source told RIA Novosti last year.
Ultimately, it is not clear if Russia will be able to complete development of the PAK-DA or its projected armament on its current schedule given the sorry state of that country’s economy. However, Russia cannot be underestimated—the country has demonstrated that even after the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union it could retain the capacity to build advanced weaponry. If the PAK-DA does eventually come to fruition, it will undoubtedly pose a serious threat—especially if it is built in numbers.