The Russian military has been in the process of designing a next-generation stealth bomber for several years, which is no surprise. Governments with large militaries are always developing a few new weapons of war. However, recent announcements about the PAK-DA strategic bomber’s capabilities will probably raise some eyebrows.
According to Sergei Karakayev, commander of Russian Strategic Missile Forces, the PAK-DA will be able to fly into space from the upper atmosphere, sly at hypersonic speeds, and by the way, it can carry nuclear weapons. Russia expects to have this plane airborne in the next five to ten years.
When Russian strategic command started talking about the PAK-DA, the spaceplane capabilities were presented as a potential way to resupply the International Space Station more cheaply. Well, it would appear the swapped out the cargo bays for nukes. But in seriousness, the ISS won’t be around forever and private firms like SpaceX are already developing launch vehicles that are more suited to that task.
The PAK-DA design is far from final — the images we have are merely early concept renderings. It is expected to have a stealth design based on continuous curvature shapes, similar to the B-2 Spirit. Radar absorbent materials will likely also be used extensively. The PAK-DA is often described as a stealthed version of the TU-160 hypersonic bomber, which has been in operation since the Soviet era. Russia sees the PAK-DA as a counter to the US Air Force’s in-development B-21 stealth bomber.
The PAK-DA’s space capabilities will require the use of two different engines and two fuel tanks. While in the atmosphere, the PAK-DA will burn standard kerosene-based jet fuel. There’s plenty of oxygen in the atmosphere to support this type of engine. In space, the bomber will need to bring its own oxidizer, so it will run on a mixture of oxygen and methane. When originally envisioned, the PAK-DA was not supposed to be a hypersonic aircraft. However, with the ability to enter orbit, the Russian military now says it can fly fast enough to reach any target in two hours. It will also be far outside the engagement range of interceptor aircraft, assuming it could even be spotted.
This is all based on what Russian officials are saying when asked about a bomber that does not yet exist. A lot could change as it is built and tested. The engine system is expected to be constructed and ready for testing in 2018. The rest of the plane should be ready around 2020. Officials hope that after a few years of test flights, the bomber will be ready to enter service in the mid 2020s.
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