The modernisation of 16 Tupolev Tu-160 'Blackjack' strategic bombers, which according to the long range plans of the Russian Air Force (VVS) should have been completed in 2017, may be delayed to 2019 or beyond, IHS Jane's has been told by some of the specialists assigned to the project.
At present there is still no finalised configuration as to what Soviet-era components will be replaced on these aircraft. Additionally, the manufacturer of the aircraft's Kuznetsov NK-32 engines is unable to come to an agreement with the United Aero-Engine Building Corporation (ODK) on the question of financing.
A source close to ODK has relayed to IHS Jane's that the current work on the modernisation of the Tu-160 and the re-opening of the production line that would manufacture the necessary components for these aircraft is "at a phase when it is difficult to project a timeframe in which this process would be completed".
The testing of the design and prototype construction work is in its final phase, the source stated, but there are a number of components that still need to be replaced in these aircraft that are not available or are no longer in production. The specialists and engineers also state that a plan for the concrete details and schedule for the modernisation of these aircraft can only be determined by an agreement with the customer. The source continued, however, that "it is without question that the money will be found to pay for this programme".
The source added the recent flight of two Tu-160s to Venezuela "were not any part of a flight test programme [for these newly developed components] and that this was an ordinary flight" of the previous, original configuration of the aircraft.
The delays and problems plaguing this programme are not new. Just prior to the Moscow MAKS air show in August 2011, Russian news outlets stated that of the 16 Tu-160s still in VVS inventory only four were flightworthy. The main limiting factor is that most of the NK-32 engines had at that point reached the end of their service life. The Kuznetsov Design Bureau (OKB) that developed the engine and the KMPO production plant that built them during the Soviet period have not produced any new engines in more than a decade. The enterprises no longer have either adequate personnel or the machine-tooling to be able to manufacture them.
The company that inherited what was left of the Kuznetsov OKB and KMPO plants in the post-Soviet period has limited capability to conduct overhauls of the NK-32 engines for the Tu-160 fleet. The company was given a contract in 2011 to re-manufacture at least 26 of these engines, but was only able to overhaul four engines in two years.
In addition to these technological challenges, there are a number of corporate and financing issues that have to be resolved. The company that heads up the current design and production work to support the NK-32 engines is the Metallist-Samara Joint Stock Company, headed by Yuri Eliseev, the former director of the Salyut engine plant in Moscow.
Eliseev is thought of as one of the most capable managers in the Russian aero-engine sector, but there still exist several issues regarding ownership of packets of shares that have to be resolved - involving Metallist-Samara being a unit within ODK, and ODK in turn being owned by the Oboronprom consortium. This has to be done expeditiously, said one Russian industry analyst, because of the soon-to-end service life of the Tu-160s and the time-cycles involved in the modernisation programme.
Once the modernisation process begins the capacity of the overhaul plan allows for a throughput of only four to five aircraft per year and there must also be some minimal number of aircraft available as missile capable, he said. "There are tens, if not hundreds of suppliers involved in this project and they have their own lead times associated with purchasing the necessary materials and training up their personnel. We are not in a situation where the customer can give us money today and we give them a [good-as-new] engine tomorrow."