While America's aerospace industry is hard at work creating the USAF's next generation bomber, Russia has a similar ongoing program known as the the PAK-DA. Now, after years of requirements changes, it appears that a blended wing, subsonic design, much like the one pictured above, will be the new jet's overall configuration.
The PAK-DA, which literally means "prospective aviation complex for long-range aviation," is Russia's next generation long-range bomber project and it aims to one day replace the Tu-95 Bear and the Tu-160 Blackjack, and possibly the Tu-22M Backfire fleets. Much like America's next generation bomber, which has gone from a very high-end concept to one with more limited goals over the last decade, mainly due to affordability concerns, the PAK-DA has also lowered its performance and capabilities expectations, although to an even greater degree over a similar span of time.
Originally, the jet was supposed to be not only stealthy but insanely fast, with officials stating at one time that it would be a "hypersonic aircraft." Even if this was embellishment or some sort of misstatement, it was clear that originally the PAK-DA was meant to super-cruise at high mach speeds. This requirement has now changed drastically as it is now confirmed that the PAK-DA will be a subsonic aircraft, with a design more focused on long-range and heavily payload lifting capabilities than anything else.
A blended wing-body design, loosely similar to NASA's X-48, appears to be the result of this change in design focus. With this in mind, the PAK-DA may have similar design trade-offs as Russia's other major next generation combat aircraft, the PAK-FA, also known as the Sukhoi T-50 fighter.
Like the T-50 fighter's low-observability, or stealth, the PAK-DA's radar signature will most likely be balanced against cost and design risk. In fact, many signs are pointing to the fact that the aircraft's configuration will have similar characteristics to the PAK-FA fighter, including a large blended wing/lifting body design, multiple ventral weapons bays and relatively small canted twin tails.
The legendary Tupolev Design Bureau is said to have finalized the PAK-DA's design early last year according, at least according to Mikhail Pogosyan, the head of Russia's quasi state-ran super aerospace holding company, known as the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC). Basic stats for Russia's subsonic new bomber are still not totally certain, but an empty weight of around 125 tons with an additional 30 ton payload and range of around 7,500 miles seems to be roughly what the new design is shooting for.
Also like America's next generation bomber saga, Russia has pushed back the entry date of its new bomber design multiple times, but a target date for a first flight and entrance into service was announced last May by Lieutenant General Viktor Bondarev:
"The maiden flight should be performed in 2019... State tests and supplies will be completed in 2023, after which the aircraft will begin to enter service."
Even with its fiscal crisis stemming from the drop in oil prices and sanctions placed on Russia by the West due to its involvement in the Ukraine crisis, multiple officials say the PAK-DA program will be going forward as planned.
Late last year, the supposed engines that will power the PAK-DA were first tested. The Kuznetsov Design Bureau, which makes all of the engines that currently power Russia's long-range bomber fleet, including the Tu-95 Bear's legendary counter-rotating NK-12N turboprops, is said to have coalesced around a modernized derivative of the NK-32 engine. The NK-32 currently powers Russia's 16 Tu-160 Blackjack bombers and is widely known as one of the last great engine design of the Soviet era.
Currently, the NK-32s fitted aboard Russia's Tu-160s are said to put out a whopping 31,000lbs of thrust at full military power and a staggering 55,000lbs of thrust in full afterburner. An updated turbofan design, called the NK-32 Tier 2, will not feature the Blackjack's powerful afterburners, but it will utilize the NK-32's core and will focus on upping the engine's military, or 'dry' thrust, while also aiming to improve its fuel economy.
Even if Russia's timeline goals for its new bomber seem optimistic and the aircraft actually enters service later than envisioned, say around 2030, it will still be a major accomplishment. By that time, Russia's TU-95 Bear design, like its American B-52 counterpart, will be close to 75 years old and a replacement for at least some of Russia's long-range bomber fleet will be over due. This is especially true considering Russia's remarkable increase in bomber flights around the globe, much to NATO's and other US allies' chagrin. The vast majority of these flights are centered around the Tu-95 and it is unclear if the Bear's stated 2040 out of service date has taken this greatly increased sortie rate into account.
The PAK-DA will likely not be anywhere near as stealthy as its western counterpart, the LRS-B, although stealth is relative when the aircraft's job is to launch long-range cruise missiles. By lowering its head-on radar signature by 75% against popular anti-air radar bands, it would allow the aircraft to get much closer to its target area without being detected. This in itself is a win considering the jet's standoff attack mission. Even in a non-nuclear role, say attacking surface targets for instance, that signature reduction could allow the PAK-DA to make it within launch range of Carrier Strike Groups without prior detection.
There has been no talk out of Russia concerning the use of the PAK-DA as anything aside from bomber/standoff weapons platform. Whereas America's Long Range Strike Bomber is being built to work a whole slew of distinct missions, including surveillance and acting as a networking connectivity node. Because the PAK-DA may not have to penetrate densely defended enemy airspace at all, and especially the fact that it does not have to loiter there, relying on standoff weaponry for its end-game attack solution, going with a less technologically expensive and risky 'balanced' stealth approach makes some sense.
To help speed the PAK-DA in development, there have also been some rumors discussing the use of the PAK-FA's avionics, or derivatives thereof, in the PAK-DA. This is similar to the LRS-B, which has a design goal of using mature sub-system technologies to speed development time and lower costs.
In the end, Russia thinks it needs a new long-range weapons truck and the PAK-DA is that truck. Now we will have to wait and see exactly what emerges, if anything emerges at all. Russia's economic crisis could deepen if additional sanctions are put in place and if oil prices continue to slide. With other competing priorities, such as rebuilding Russia's rusting navy, upgrading existing aircraft and fielding the PAK-FA fighter, along with procuring new tanks and modernizing its ballistic missile arsenal, it will be interesting to see how many ways the Kremlin's fiscal pie can be cut until doing so will leave key programs on life support at best.
Some of the PAK-DA's costs could be offset by partnering with another nation on the project, such as China or India, although China appears to be moving ahead of Russia in terms of stealth technology and is rumored to be developing its own stealthy bomber. Still, China needs a new long range weapons platform and there is no guarantee that the cost-risk analysis of going about it alone will make greater sense than teaming with Russia, especially considering Russia has what China does not: advanced engine technology. India on the other hand, has already had its concerns about the capability promises made by Russia when it comes to their continuing involvement in the PAK-FA fighter program and has placed a high-priority on increasing its hemispherical Naval capabilities. Still, India clearly has a lust for greater power projection abilities. With all this in mind, if the PAK-DA concept continues to mature without major issues, either country could infuse much needed cash in the program.
Still, there are few better assets Russia has to intimidate and antagonize its potential foes than its long-range bomber force. The 'optics' of a Tu-95 flying off the coast of a NATO country has far greater geopolitical impact than building a new ICBM that sits hidden inside a tube its whole design life. This alone may make building a new and more menacing bomber a greater priority than almost any other, as Putin knows how to play the propaganda and psychological warfare game with the best of them.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com