During the late 1960s the Soviet Union developed the Tu-160 (NATO reporting name "Blackjack") as a response to the American B-70 Valkyrie. However, as it turned out that a Mach 3+ strategic bomber would be too expensive, the Tu-160 evolved into a Mach 2 long range bomber similar to the Tu-22M (NATO reporting name "Backfire").
The Tu-160 began life in late 1967 in a contest between Sukhoi and Myasishchev, but later was built by Tupolev. Production of the Tu-160 began in 1984 with a planned production of 100 aircraft, but due to the collapse of the Soviet Union production was capped at 36 aircraft, of which 19 were left in the Ukraine when the Soviet Union collapsed. In 1999 the Ukraine gave Russia 6 Tu-160s and 3 Tu-95s along with 600 air launched missiles in payment for gas debts.
The Tu-160 has a top speed of 2200 kilometers per hour (1,367 MPH), and a max altitude of 16,000 meters (10 miles), and a range of between 10,500 and 14,000 kilometers (6,524.4 to 8,700 miles) depending on the payload. The Tu-160 is armed with either 12 Kh-55s for attacking fixed targets, or 24 Kh-15 for either attacking enamy radar installations or for the anti-shipping role. The Tu-160 is also the fist Soviet/Russian bomber not to have tail guns since the end of WWII, as all previous Soviet/Russian bombs had at a minimum twin 23mm guns in the tail.
In recent years the Russian long range aviation units have become more active, due to the fact that in 2007 former Russian president (and ex-KGB agent) Vladimir Putin announced that long range flights that were banned by former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, would resume. Since then Tu-160s have been intercepted by NATO fighters several times, most recently in March of 2010.
Due to the fact that the Tu-160 is a somewhat old design, there is talk that the bomber version of the T-50, the PAK DA will replace the T-160 and the Tu-95. However, the Russian government has stated that upgrades will keep the Tu-160 in service through 2020.
Photo Credit: Sergey Krivchikov