Key point: The PAK-DA bomber seems promising and is set to arrive this year. However, how much will it cost and how many will be built?
The Tupolev PAK-DA is a sixth-generation strategic bomber that is being produced as a long-term replacement for the Tu-160M and Tu-22M3. Whereas the latter two bombers—and for that matter, much of Russia’s air force—are derivatives of decades-old Soviet aircraft, the PAK-DA is being developed on the basis of an entirely new airframe design. As Tupolev lead engineer Igor Shevchuk put it, the PAK-DA is a “fundamentally new fighter, based on new conceptual solutions.”
Defense sources revealed in the summer of 2020 that PAK-DA’s design had been finalized, following almost a decade of bureaucratic debate and fraught research and development work: “the production of airframe elements will be handled by one of the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC)’s plants; development of working design documentation is complete, material shipping has commenced.” It was likewise announced that the UAC had begun work on the first PAK-DA model, with construction to be completed in 2021. In December 2020, it was reported that as many as three PAK-DA prototypes were already in production.
Russian outlets reported earlier this month that the PAK-DA successfully completed an early set of performance trials. A defense industry insider source told the Russian news agency RIA that the PAK-DA bomber will be able to penetrate the outer layers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s air defenses without being detected. The source added that the bomber will be able to deploy part of its arsenal outside of the effective engagement range of western anti-air systems.
The PAK-DA bomber’s concrete specifications remain unknown as of the time of writing. It is widely believed, though unconfirmed, that the PAK-DA will boast an operational range of roughly 12,000 km and maximum payload of up to thirty tons. Similar to its Chinese and U.S. next-generation counterparts, the PAK-DA is a flying-wing subsonic heavy bomber that prioritizes range and deep penetration capabilities over raw speed and maneuverability. As Russia’s Aerospace’s Forces (VKS) commander Viktor Bondarev put it, “It is impossible to build a missile-carrying bomber invisible to radars and supersonic at the same time. This is why focus is placed on stealth capabilities.” The bomber can carry both a conventional and nuclear payload, notably including hypersonic missiles, though its exact weapons loadout has not yet been revealed.
The PAK-DA will reportedly enter serial production in 2027. It is unknown how many production units are planned, but, considering that Russia’s aircraft industry is actively pursuing parallel bomber modernization efforts that include the Tu-160M2, it appears that the military is not expecting to receive large numbers of PAK-DA bombers anytime soon. Given the expensive and technically demanding nature of the PAK-DA project, Russia’s defense ministry will likely procure a small initial batch with plans to acquire more models in coming years.
Mark Episkopos is the national security reporter for the National Interest. This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.