The history of military aviation knows multiple examples of aircrafts that appeared to be a complete failure. But nothing can beat the story of the first Soviet supersonic bomber – the Tupolev Tu-22.

The troubles and the controversy of this bomber, that Tupolev himself referred to as “his most unfortunate creation”, could be seen through the variety of nicknames that the plane received during its career. Among the Russian pilots, the Tu-22 was called the “Pricker”, the “Man-eater”, as well as “Error-plane” and “Defectocraft”, but the most famous among all others was the name – “Supersonic Booze Carrier”.

The Tupolev Tu-22M (Russian: Туполев Ту-22М; NATO reporting name: Backfire) is a supersonic, variable-sweep wing, long-range strategic and maritime strike bomber developed by the Tupolev Design Bureau in the 1960s. According to some sources, the bomber was believed to be designated Tu-26 at one time. During the Cold War, the Tu-22M was operated by the Soviet Air Forces (VVS) in a missile carrier strategic bombing role, and by the Soviet Naval Aviation (Aviacija Vojenno-Morskogo Flota, AVMF) in a long-range maritime anti-shipping role. Significant numbers remain in service with the Russian Air Force, and as of 2014 more than 100 Tu-22Ms are in use.

In 1962, with the introduction of the Tupolev Tu-22, it became increasingly clear that the aircraft was inadequate in its role as a bomber. In addition to widespread unserviceability and maintenance problems, the Tu-22’s handling characteristics proved to be dangerous. Its landing speed was 100 km/h (60 mph) greater than previous bombers and it had a tendency to pitch up and strike its tail upon landing. It was difficult to fly, and had poor all-round visibility. In 1962, Tupolev commenced work on major update of the Tu-22. Initially, the bureau planned to add a variable-sweep wing and uprated engines into the updated design. The design was tested at TsAGI’s wind tunnels at Zhukovsky.

During this time Sukhoi developed the T-4, a four-engine titanium aircraft with canards. A response to the XB-70, it was to have a cruise speed of 3,200 km/h (2,000 mph), requiring a major research effort in order to develop the requisite technologies. Tupolev, whose expertise is with bombers, offered the Soviet Air Force (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily, VVS) a massively updated version of the Tu-22.

Compared to the T-4, it was an evolutionary design, and thus its appeal laid in its simplicity and low cost. The Soviet government was skeptical about the need to approve the development of a replacement aircraft so soon after the Tu-22 had just entered service. The Air Force and Tupolev, in order to save face regarding the Tu-22’s operational deficiencies and to stave off criticisms from the ICBM lobby, agreed to pass off the design as an update of the Tu-22 in their discussions with the government. The aircraft was designated Tu-22M, given the OKB code “Aircraft 45”, and an internal designation of “AM”. Their effort was successful as the government approved the design on 28 November 1967, and decreed the development of the aircraft’s main weapon, the Kh-22. The T-4 itself would make its first flight in 1972, but was later cancelled.

US intelligence had been aware of the existence of the aircraft since 1969, and the first satellite photograph of the bomber was taken in 1970. The existence of the aircraft was a shock to US intelligence as Nikita Khrushchev, who had been the Soviet premier up to 1964, was adamant that ICBMs would render the bomber obsolete.

As in the case of its contemporaries, the MiG-23 and Su-17 projects, the advantages of variable-sweep wing (or “swing wing”) seemed attractive, allowing a combination of short take-off performance, efficient cruising, and good high-speed, low-level flight. The result was a new swing wing aircraft named Samolyot 145 (Aeroplane 145), derived from the Tupolev Tu-22, with some features borrowed from the abortive Tu-98. The Tu-22M was based on the Tu-22’s weapon system and used its Kh-22 missile. The Tu-22M designation was used to help get approval for the bomber within the Soviet military and government system.

The Tu-22M designation was used by the Soviet Union during the SALT II arms control negotiations, creating the impression that it was a modification of the Tu-22. Some suggested that the designation was deliberately deceptive, and intended to hide the Tu-22M’s performance. Other sources suggest the “deception” was internal to make it easier to get budgets approved. According to some sources, the Backfire-B/C production variants were believed to be designated Tu-26 by Russia, although this is disputed by many others. The US State and Defense Departments have used the Tu-22M designation for the Backfire.

Production of all Tu-22M variants totalled 497 including pre-production aircraft.

Sources: YouTube; Wikipedia

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