Launching US Rockets From Soviet Bombers

In the last post I complained about how ugly the Soviet ekranoplans were. I’m glad I can now pass along a story about one of their really beautiful planes – the TU-160 supersonic bomber. It almost got used for doing air launches of Pegasus orbital rockets, but the Russians were too embarrassed to let that happen. They call it The White Swan:

At present it’s the largest and heaviest combat plane in the world, and the fastest bomber, beaten only by fighters. It’s only a little smaller than a 747, and about 2/3 the empty weight, but can go 2.3X as fast – 2200 km/hour (Mach 2.05) at 12,000 m. It has a variable swept wing, which gives it a lot of lift on takeoff and less drag at speed, and is the largest one of these ever flown. It first flew in 1981, and the USSR built 35 of them before it collapsed.

What happened next is described by Dario Leone in this recent article at The Aviation Geek Club. At the time of the collapse, 16 TU-160s ended up stranded in Ukraine. The Ukrainians were happy at first to have such a major military asset, but soon realized that they were white elephants. They need enormous amounts of fuel, and all their spare parts and maintenance know-how were back in Russia. It was originally designed to counter the US B-1A bomber (and it greatly resembles it), but the B-1A got cancelled, and Ukraine didn’t need to bomb anyone anyway. They tried to sell them back to Russia for $75M each in 1993, but the bankrupt Yeltsin administration wasn’t interested. The Russians offered tactical aircraft and munitions instead of cash, but the Ukrainians had their own financial problems.

Then the US got into the picture. The US Nunn-Lugar Act was one of the best programs of the under-appreciated Bush Sr. administration. It allocated real money ($400M a year) to dismantle nuclear weapons and their delivery systems in the former Soviet Union. It succeeded, and Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan are nuclear-free. The US offered Ukraine as much as $13M to dismantle the TU-160s, and they did take apart two of them in 1998 and 1999.

Then an even better offer came along from the US – sell us three TU-160s, and we’ll use them as launch platforms for the Pegasus rocket. This was the first orbital launch vehicle to be entirely developed with private money. It was designed by Antonio Elias at Orbital Sciences (now part of Northrop-Grumman), and first launched in 1990:

The rocket is carried up to 12 km (39,000 feet) beneath a customized Lockheed L-1011 jumbo jet, and then dropped. Its solid-fuel engine then ignites and takes a payload of up to 450 kg up to orbit. That’s not a lot, but it was the cheapest orbital launcher in the world for 20 years. Launching from a plane instead of a pad meant that it didn’t need a huge first stage, didn’t have to have perfect weather on the pad, and wasn’t tied to one launch location. That let it do a wider range or orbits too. It’s had a lot of missions, 45, but has been superseded today by the SpaceX Falcon9 (more expensive, but a lot more mass to orbit) and the RocketLab Electron (less mass, but cheaper).

The L-1011 was a passenger plane competitor to the Boeing 747, but lost out. It turned out to be perfect for this usage because it’s built with two main structural beams along the bottom instead of one. That let Orbital Sciences hang the Pegasus from two pylons, and cut holes in the bottom as slots for the rocket’s fins

So the L-1011 was fine, but could only go up to 1000 km/h. The TU-160 can get to 2000 km/h, which would give Pegasus a lot more payload, maybe twice as much. It’s more expensive to fly, and releasing the rocket at Mach 2 would be tricky, but the extra payload would greatly increase its value.

Yet selling the pride of the Russian Air Force to the Americans just made the Russians’ heads explode. They quickly cut a deal with Ukraine for all their TU-160s in return for forgiving Ukraine’s natural gas debts. The planes ended up going for about $250M, which is a lot more than the US would have paid.

The Russians also started adapting it for their own air launch service. In the 90s they were working on a two-stage liquid-fueled rocket for it called Burlak, that could have put 600 to 1100 kg into various orbits. A burlak is a peasant who hauls barges; “The Volga Boatmen” is about them. The project monies were apparently spent on “foreign cars and saunas”, and so their German satellite backers pulled out. It has recently been revived, though. They have been building new TU-160s in the 2000s and 2010s, and talking about variants such as a passenger liner or a carrier for hypersonic cruise missiles. The plane is quite active these days, with recent missions to Syria and Venezuela. The age of bombers is long gone, though, except for military showmanship.

It was breathtakingly arrogant for the US to think they could just buy these ultra-advanced planes, but hey, it was the 90s. That decade was the peak of US world influence. That power was soon squandered in the War on Terror and Katrina and the Great Recession, and is unlikely to come back again. It’s too bad that these beautiful planes have yet to find a good use, but maybe air launch rocketry, like ekranoplans, is another technology that will rise again.

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1 Response to Launching US Rockets From Soviet Bombers

  1. bchandler2 says:

    That plane literally looks like plane concept art.

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