- A man claiming to be a former employee of the famous Tupolev aircraft company is seek asylum in the United States
- The man claims to have worked on the Tu-160 strategic bomber.
- The Tu-160 is RussiaAmerica’s most advanced bomber, designed to launch nuclear-tipped cruise missiles at the United States
The New Cold War between the United States and Russia has apparently been played out in an unlikely place: the US-Mexico border. A man claiming to be a former employee of a major Russian defense contractor showed up at the border, offering Russian military secrets in exchange for political asylum. The man claims to have worked on the Tu-160 bomber, Russia’s dual-capability, semi-stealth, cruise missile launcher.
The man, according Yahoo! News, traveled to the border with his family – in an armored SUV – to seek political asylum. The man identified himself as a former civil engineer who worked at the Kazan Aircraft Plant. The man claimed to have worked on an “attack aircraft”, but feared his past support of Russian political dissident Alexei Navalny could get him into trouble.
The man reportedly told officials he worked at Tupolev from 2018 to 2021 and referred to the Tu-160 as “White Swan”, a Russian nickname for the Tu-160, known to NATO by the code name ” Blackjack” due to its white paint and graceful, swan-like appearance.
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The Tupelov Design Bureau of the Soviet Union developed the Tu-160 in the late 1970s. The aircraft resembles the American Bomber B-1 both in appearance and in mission, with a pointed, pointed nose, a variable-geometry wing that can pivot forward or backward, and a sleek overall appearance.
The “Blackjack” serves primarily as a cruise missile carrier. It can carry up to six Kh-55SM land attack cruise missiles, each with a 200 kiloton thermonuclear warhead, or the Kh-555, armed with a conventional high-explosive warhead. (The B-1 bomber is no longer a nuclear-capable aircraft.)
As a cruise missile carrier, the Tu-160 typically flies at Mach 0.77 and a maximum altitude of 39,000 feet. However, just like the B-1 bomber, it can penetrate enemy airspace at low altitude, flying at 640 miles per hour using a terrain avoidance system.
Here is a video, courtesy of the Russian Defense Ministry, of a Tu-160 launching Kh-101 land attack cruise missiles against targets in Syria:
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Russia’s economic difficulties after the collapse of the Soviet Union, leading up to the 2000s, meant it relied on ex-Soviet military hardware to keep Russia’s armed forces fully equipped. The Russian bomber fleet was no exception, flying a mixed fleet of 66 Tu-95 “Bear” bombers, 42 Tu-22M “Backfire” bombers, and 16 Tu-160s. The Tu-160s are based at Engels Air Base near Saratov, 300 miles south of Kazan.
All Tu-160s are at least 34 years old and an upgrade program only started in 2014. Only a handful of bombers were upgraded from Tu-160 to Tu-160M status, but eventually, the entire fleet of White Swans will be getting a new glass cockpit, new navigation systems and new satellite communication equipment. At the same time, Russia is relaunching Tu-160 production, aiming to produce between 40 and 50 new bombers. The new bombers would receive new engines.
If the anonymous engineer is who he claims to be, he could be of great use to the US Secret Service. The Tu-160 is part of Russia’s nuclear triad which includes bombers, missile submarines and land-based missiles. In the event of war, the Tu-160s would fly over the Arctic Circle, their weapons bays filled with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, and launch against targets in the United States and Canada. Newly built Tu-160s are supposed to fly for 40 years, so the more US intelligence knows about them, the better.
According to the report, officials are particularly interested in whether or not the upgraded Blackjack bombers are modified to carry hypersonic weapons. It’s probably the Kh-47M2 (“Kinzhal”, or “Dagger”)a short-range land-based ballistic missile modified to be transported by air.
Kinzhal has a range of 1,200 miles, about the range of Kh-55SM nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. The Kh-55SM, however, flies at around 500 mph, while Kinzhal’s top speed is around 7,672 mph (Mach 10). Fired at maximum range, a Kh-55SM would hit its target in about 2 hours and 20 minutes, Kinzhal in about 12 minutes. The introduction of hypersonics would greatly complicate NORAD’s efforts to destroy a Tu-160 bomber’s missiles once launched.
The anonymous Russian asylum seeker is what is known in intelligence circles as a “walk-in”: someone who literally approaches US officials, instead of being secretly recruited, and offers information, often for a price. If this individual is who he claims to be, his information is much more useful than it was a year ago. As US-Russian relations turn icy over the war in Ukraine and Russia threatens to use nuclear weapons, Moscow’s nuclear secrets are more valuable than they have been since. decades.
Writer on defense and security issues, lives in San Francisco.