Russia's Mystery Bomber: Why so Little Is Known About PAK-DA Stealth Bomber
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Moscow's new secret, super weapon.
by Charlie Gao
Key point: Little by little, some information about the bomber is coming out.
As the United States proceeds with research and development on the B-21 “Raider” project, Russia is also developing its own next-generation strategic bomber. Called PAK-DA, which stands for Перспективный авиационный комплекс дальней авиации, or Prospective Aviation Complex for Long Range Aviation, the PAK-DA is expected to replace all current strategic bombers in the Russian Air Force by the next decade. With regards to strategic bombers, the Russian Air Force has an analog to most American aircraft but the B-2 Spirit. It’s unsure whether the PAK-DA will attempt to fill the same role the B-2 Spirit has been used for in the USAF from the information publicly available.
As of the latest predictions, which were made in May 2018, the PAK-DA is expected to fly by 2025–2026 and enter serial production by 2028 or 2029. Per tradition, the PAK-DA will receive a “Tu-” designation, as the majority of work conducted for it was done by Tupolev Design Bureau. This stands in contrast to the PAK-FA, which is now known as the Su-57. Both aircraft are products of Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation, which rolled together almost all Russian aircraft producers into a single conglomerate.
Similar to other modern aircraft programs, the dates for the initial service and prototyping of the PAK-DA have continued to be pushed back. While the prototype was originally slated to take off in 2019 (As announced in 2014), Tupolev’s director revised this to say that the rollout of the first prototype was expected around 2021–2022. Currently, the UAC head says the prototype PAK-DA for flight tests will be produced around mid 2020. Tupolev is currently busy with the production of the new Tu-160M2, which recently is completing flight trials, so it suggests that the PAK-DA is still in a very early stage of development. Sources have stated that reduced scale mockups of the PAK-DA in composite and a full size mockup in wood have been constructed. The Tu-160M2 has been stated as a reason that the PAK-DA has been delayed, as the modernization took up a lot of Tupolev’s resources.
The actual role of the PAK-DA is only known in broad strokes. As a strategic bomber, the PAK-DA would be responsible for delivering nuclear weapons that penetrate enemy air defenses in the event of nuclear war, a role it will inherit from the Tu-95 and Tu-160 strategic bombers currently in service. As current versions of the Tu-95 and Tu-160 currently use air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) as their primary delivery method for nuclear warheads, specifically the Kh-55SM and Kh-102, the PAK-DA will likely use further developed versions of these missiles or a new ALCM of fresh design. The new hypersonic Kh-47M “Kinzhal” ALCM could possibly be used on the PAK-DA as a primary armament. However, ALCMs in the Tu-160 and Tu-95 are primarily stored in internal rotary launchers. The large size of the Kinzhal could prove counterproductive to this. External storage of Kinzhal ALCMs is unlikely (although it is currently used on the Tu-95MS16 and Tu-95MSM) as the PAK-DA has been reported to have stealthy features, external storage would negate that advantage. The Kinzhal is also launched from the MiG-31 as the high and fast flight profile of the MiG-31 provides the necessary energy for the missile attain its velocity. The PAK-DA is unlikely to have a similar flight profile. However, hypersonic engine technology form the Kinzhal could find its way into a smaller future ALCM used in PAK-DA. The Kinzhal is also significantly shorter ranged than existing missiles, with a listed range of 2000km, compared to over 5500km for the Kh-102.
The actual shape and look of the PAK-DA is unknown outside of some publicity renders. Dmitry Rogozin has stated that the aircraft will be of a flying wing design. It’s not sure if this will be a simple wing similar to the B-2 Spirit, or whether there will be additional control surfaces protruding from the wing. Publicity renders have shown both configurations. Some technical characteristics can be found in public information. Its mass is estimated to be half that of the Tu-160, which would put it around 130 tons. It’s also expected to be subsonic and have two engines, and at it will be able to fly a range of fifteen thousand kilometers without refueling. This is an increase from the Tu-160, which has a range of around twelve thousand kilometers without refueling. The PAK-DA’s electronics are said to be “unified” with the Tu-160M2, allowing for more rapid development. Also, the PAK-DA has been said to be able to use “any airfields,” which implies that it might have a shorter takeoff run than the Tu-160 or even the Tu-95.
Charlie Gao studied Political and Computer Science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national security issues. This first appeared in 2018.