By Ilya Kramnik
Russia’s Long-Range Aviation Commander Lieutenant General Anatoly Zhikharev has said the Air Force has moved on with its project for a new strategic bomber (PAK-DA), which has entered its construction phase. The statement proves that a possible PAK-DA configuration has already been confirmed. What remains to be seen are its future prospects and when the new stealthy bomber will enter the Russian air fleet.
It is of note, however, that both the plane’s concept and its main characteristics remain an enigma wrapped up in a mystery, and neither the United Aircraft Corporation, its design bureau, nor the Air Force are willing to lift the veil just a little bit more – but it is possible to take a guess.
Scenario No. 1 – or “stealthier, slower, cheaper” – implies a long-range subsonic bomber that could slip under the enemy’s radar and break though its anti-missile defense. This kind of a plane would probably be “optionally piloted”, in the sense that it is optionally manned or unmanned. This configuration follows the design of the American next generation bomber, created to replace the B-52 and B-1B planes. Its Russian counterpart would come in place of the subsonic Tupolev Tu-95 jet and probably be equipped with cutting-edge Kuznetsov NK-65 engines.
Scenario No. 2 – or a “reasonable balance” – infers the best possible implementation of know-how acquired during the construction of the fifth-generation T-50 fighter. In this case, we will see a supersonic jet featuring T-50’s radar station and four, instead of two, fighter engines. The bomber’s maximum takeoff weight could even be increased to twice as much as that of a fighter, up to 120-130 tons, bringing it up to par with the Tupolev Tu-22M strike bomber. At the same time, efficient modern engines can allow PAK-DA designers to create a bomber capable of carrying a similar war load over much greater distances, possibly equaling those of the Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack hornet.
Scenario No. 3 – or “ultimative” – is largely hinged on the TU-160’s war load, all thanks to revamped Kuznetsov NK-32 engines, which are expected to hit the production line again. In this case, PAK-DA’s main performance attributes would close in on those of the Tu-160, while its engines, revolutionary construction materials, and design would increase its range, boost stealth capabilities and, sadly enough, skyrocket its cost. This scenario is therefore the least likely.
Such predictions seldom pay off, but it’s worth trying anyway. Here are some of the clues that Aviation Commander Lt. Gen. Zhikharev gave us. Chiefly, he said: “We have already passed the point of laying down tactical and technical characteristics [of the plane] and are getting on to their construction and tests.”
Just two weeks earlier, Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Air Forces, Major General Alexander Chernyaev, declared that the new bomber will be built ahead of schedule: “I think the first serial PAK-DA bombers will be delivered to the Air Force by 2020,” he said in an interview, published on the webpage of the Defense Ministry’s press-office.
The general attributed such an optimistic forecast to the fact that the concept of PAK-DA had already been formed and was being brushed over. “At present we have everything to build the jet in time and deliver it to the Air Force along with Tu-95MS, Tu-160 and Tu-22M3 aircraft, which have already proven their reliability,” Maj. Gen. Chernyaev pointed out. The previous deadline was set for the mid-2020s.
All what remains is to sit, wait, and hope that the Air Force will have some more details to share about the brand-new “flagman” bomber in its anniversary year.