Russia in talks over new bomber

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Replacement is unlikely to have stealth features due to cost and will probably be based on Tu-160 design

Russia is committed to maintaining a strategic bomber capability, and its air force is in talks with domestic manufacturers and designers over proposals for a system to replaceits Tupolev Tu-160 and Tu-95MS cruise missile carriers, says commander of Strategic Aviation Lt Gen Igor Khvorov.

While no decision has been taken about the configuration of the future bomber, it is unlikely to be a stealth design, he says. "Stealth is a necessary characteristic of future aircraft, but it is very expensive and is also very hard to maintain in the course of operations," he says. "We are undecided yet, but as far as cost effectiveness is concerned, a Tu-160 derivative is preferable."

Russia's air force is due to take delivery of one new-build Tu-160 with upgraded capabilities from the Kazan aircraft plant in April. "It will be superior to its predecessors in all aspects, including avionics, weapons and other systems," says Khvorov.

Strategic aviation will also acquire new tanker aircraft based on the Ilyushin Il-76MF transport, Khvorov says, since the service's current strength of one regiment of Il-78 tankers is insufficient.

The air force, which celebrated 90 years of long-range aviation on 23 December, has no shortage of aircrew for its bomber force, Khvorov says, with around 25 aircrew joining per year, maintaining current force strength. Although the fuel situation for the average pilot remains undesirably low, the air force maintains a cadre of experienced aircrew with above-average flying time, he says. "While average pilots get 30-40 hours a year, some get quite a bit more."

Russia's bomber force has a large amount of life left in its current aircraft, which have all undergone significant avionics modifications since 2001, Khvorov says. "Our older aircraft like the Tu-22M and Tu-16 were designed to last 12-15 years, but went on for 35 in some cases. Our current Tu-160 andTu-95MS aircraft have similar life span left in them."

Khvorov also confirms recent claims by defence minister Sergei Ivanov and President Vladimir Putin that a new long-range attack weapon has entered service with the air force.

"Work has been going on for some time in this field, and technology is developing," he says, while declining to confirm whether the Raduga Kh-101 cruise missile has entered service.

HOWARD GETHIN / MOSCOW