Many major global powers including Russia, China, and India are aggressively working towards developing and matching fifth-gen stealth technology that the US has been using for decades.
Being leaps ahead of the league, Washington had developed, used, and now even considering the retirement of its long-range stealth bomber with new and more advanced optionally-manned variants.
The US had developed the revolutionary B-2 ‘Spirit’ stealth bomber about thirty years ago, which made its first flight in July 1989. This flying wing design became so popular and successful that it gave inspiration to most of the ongoing stealth bomber projects- including the Russian Okhotnik, Indian Ghatak/SWiFT, Dassault nEUROn, Northrop Grumman’s X-47B and its own replacement, the B-21 ‘Raider’.
The Russian military planners are sure to have already realized the potential of stealth bombers with the combat debut of US’ B-2 in 1999 in Kosovo, and subsequently in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Middle-East.
However, what took Russia so long to develop a stealth bomber remains unclear; possible reasons cited are the financial constraints that made it more justified to modernize existing bomber fleets.
In an Izvestia report, however, it is revealed that Moscow has requested the Tupolev design bureau to develop at least three of its future bomber prototypes (under a program called ‘PAK-DA’, a similar name like the PAK-FA which yielded the now Su-57) for preliminary testing by 2023 and begin the initial flight tests by 2025.
Whether this deadline would be met with efficient results is a matter of time, but at least, this confirms that Russia is very serious about stealth bombers.
Additionally, the report mentioned that the PAK-DA would enter serial production in 2027, as stated in the Tupolev Design Bureau’s contract for the implementation of experimental design work.
The report also states that the upcoming Russian stealth bomber shall be manned by four crew members- similar to the strategic missile carrier Tu-160. Therefore, the first batch of three prototype aircraft would use 12 ejection seats for the crew members.
The Russian Air Force currently operates three dedicated bomber aircraft, all manufactured by Tupolev. These are the Tu-22M, the Tu-160, and the Tu-95. It also operates other dedicated ground attacks/fighter aircraft like the Su-34 and Su-24, and close air support Su-25.
Why a Stealth Bomber?
A stealth bomber has one obvious advantage over other bombers – it being less ‘visible’ to the radars. It can sneak into the enemy territory, identify the targets, release its payload (although for that brief moment most stealth bombers become vulnerable to detection as the doors of bomb bay open), and then retreat into friendly airspace while maintaining the element of surprise.
The first operational stealth bomber was Lockheed’s F-117 ‘Nighthawk’ which was introduced in October 1983. The aircraft was shrouded in secrecy until it was revealed to the public in 1988.
Of the 64 F-117s built, 59 were production versions, with the other five being prototypes. The aircraft is limited to subsonic speeds as its engines lack afterburners, as the sonic boom created by supersonic flight could naturally hamper the element of surprise and the hot gases could make for the infrared seeking missiles to detect and track the aircraft.
It also sacrificed the wing aspect ratio and a high sweep angle needed to deflect incoming radar waves.
The aircraft was retired in 2008 with the arrival of the F-22 Raptor, however, some airframes are still maintained in airworthy condition by the Air Force.