Many aviation enthusiasts are quick to point out the similarities between the Russian Tu-160 Blackjack
and the American B-1 Lancer. The
assumption seems to be that the Tupolev design is a crude imitation of the Rockwell design.
Where that theory runs into a brick wall is when you take into account the design heritage of the Tupolev design, which clearly shows precursory hints
at the ultimate design years before the B-1 program was even launched.
There is no doubt that the project which spawned the Tu-160 was initiated as a reaction to America’s B-1 program, but the reason the designs look so
alike is due more to similar concepts and similar technology progressions running in parallel rather than deliberate imitation.
To demonstrate that the Tu-160s configuration was a natural progression of Russian thinking, I will track the USSR’s strategic bomber development
from the 1960s through to the Tu-160. I will not reference literally every aircraft/concept, just the main relevant ones.
The story might as well start in 1961 when USSR launched a bomber program in response to the US’s XB-70 Valkyrie program. Sukhoi, Tupolev and
Yakovlev where invited to make proposals. Before I go on I should point out that the Russian design bureaus were far more incestuous in their ideas
and technology than their US counterparts. It was typical for concepts to switch bureau, so even though they were rivals on one level, technology and
ideas flowed between them. Thus Sukhoi thinking influenced Tupolev thinking and vice versa.
The main aircraft spawned from the 1961 project was the Sukhoi T-4
supersonic bomber which is often described as a scaled down Valkyrie:
Tupolev’s main design was the Tu-125
It would be an easy mistake to assume that the T-4 and Tu-125 designs were again crude copies of the XB-70, which they undeniably resemble to varying
degrees. However an interesting precursor which demonstrates that Russia was already thinking along those lines of a supersonic bomber is the Tupolev
“SB” of 1959:
The Tupolev design lost to the T-4 and never made into prototype form. In another parallel to the American XB-70 program, the Russian program was
cancelled in 1969-70 although the exact reason is unclear; the likely reason being that Tupolev, having lost to Sukhoi, managed to sway politicians
with the idea of further improvement to the lower risk Tu-22M Backfire
project as a cheaper alternative.
Work on the Tu-22M had started in 1965 (then known as “145”) and it first flew on August 30th 1969. An early model of the “145” shows the
heritage, but alsi the variable geometry wing:
This reminds us that Tupolev was flying swing-wing strategic bombers before the B-1 development contract was even awarded (1970)
The cancelled Sukhoi T-4 design had several follow-up designs. The first noteworthy one is the T-4M
concept which featured variable geometry
wings and shows the half-way house between the T-4/Valkyrie and the Tu-160/B-1:
In 1969 the USSR launched another bomber competition in response to the US’s AMSA project (which resulted in the B-1). This time Tupolev, Myasishev
and Sukhoi took part. The winner was officially Sukhoi’s T-4MS
(aka “200”), as it’s name suggests a progression of the T-4 design
though this time it looked very different:
Note the swing wings and lifting body between underslung engine nacelles.
Myasishev proposed various configurations incorporating swing wings ultimately developing the M-18 concept in 1972:
Note how Myasishev’s design is basically the same configuration as the Tu-160 and B-1. Note That the Myasishev design is two years before the
B-1 even flew.
. Myasishev’s design came second to Sukhoi’s T-4MS in the design battle, Tupolev’s last. The T-4MS was ordered to be built
but that was not feasible because it would have meant canceling/interrupting the comparatively more important Su-27 program. Thus the T-4MS was
transferred to Toplev
Tupolev didn’t develop the T-4MS however, still preferring their own rival: the Tu-160 Blackjack
even though it was projected to be
less capable (thus loosing the government competition).
The starting point of the original Tu-160 proposal was actually the Tu-144 supersonic airliner (comparable to the Concorde) though early designs of
the Tu-160 show a more blended wing/body relative to the Tu-144 (/Tu-244), making it appear more like a militarized Concorde:
It was in 1972 after the transfer of Sukhoi T-4MS technology to Tuploev, and of Myasishev M-18 data, Tuplev started to develop the M-18 design with
variable geometry (“swing”) wings. The manufacturer of the first three prototypes commenced in 1977 and first flight was on November 14th 1981:
I am not suggesting that Russian designers are not influenced by American designers, but clearly the popular perception that the Tu-160 is just a
“copy” of the B-1 is flawed, there is a clear natural evolution of concepts.
[edit on 17-3-2006 by planeman]