Russia Nuclear Bomber Got a Major Upgrade, Now It's Flying for the First Time Ever

Russia's Tupolev Tu-22M3M strategic bomber in Kazan, Russia, August 16. The upgraded nuclear-capable warplane will be equipped with new electronics and precision cruise missiles. Tupolev

A new and improved nuclear-capable Russian warplane has reportedly conducted its debut flight test, boosting the air component of Moscow's nuclear triad.

The Tupolev Tu-22M3M supersonic long-range strategic bomber flew Friday for the first time, according to footage published by the Moscow-based United Aircraft Corporation. The aircraft was seen departing the Kazan Aircraft Production Association airfield and reportedly flew unarmed for a duration of 37 minutes and reached an altitude of more than 4,920 feet.

"The first upgraded Tu-22M3M made the debut flight from the airfield of the Kazan-based Gorbunov Aircraft Enterprise on Friday. This flight started the missile-carrying bomber's flight tests," the state-run Tass Russian News Agency cited a defense industry source as saying.

"There were no weapons aboard the aircraft, and the flight was brief," the source added.

The original Tu-22 entered service in 1962 as the Soviet Union's first bomber but did not see widespread use as it apparently faced a series of setbacks. A completely renovated version known as the Tu-22M was then fielded in the 1970s and eventually transformed into the Tu-22M3, which has seen use in Russia's battle against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in Syria.

In November 2017, Tass cited a source as saying that plans for the revamped Tu-22M3M had been completed and that work had begun in Kazan, where the plane departed Friday. Up to 30 previous models were refitted with the upgrade, getting new navigation and sighting systems, a more powerful motor and the advanced Kh-32 cruise missile. The weapon was touted as being able to fly as high as 130,000 feet and hit targets more than 620 miles away.

The Tu-22M3M was finally unveiled at the Kazan airfield in August, when it was revealed that up to 80 percent of the aircraft's electronics had been replaced to improve accuracy and simplify its handling. The aircraft's new apparatus would resemble that of another recent addition to the Russian air force, the Tu-160M2 heavy strategic bomber.

"The result of this work was a significant expansion of the combat potential of the aviation system," aircraft manufacturer Tupolev said in a statement Friday. "The first prototype Tu-22M3M aircraft was created as part of a large-scale modernization program for strategic and long-range aviation systems, which PJSC Tupolev currently performs. The next stage of the program is a deep modernization of the first batch of Tu-22M3 combat aircraft based on the results of the state joint tests."

Russia's Tupolev Tu-22M3M strategic bomber is seen at an airfield in Kazan, Russia, on August 16. The upgraded nuclear-capable warplane will be equipped with new electronics and precision cruise missiles. Tupolev

The Tu-22M3M project is part of a large-scale modernization effort of the armed forces being overseen by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moscow's military prowess declined greatly in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, and the Kremlin has sought to narrow the considerable gap between its own firepower and that of the United States.

The two countries have grown increasingly at odds in spite of President Donald Trump's initial attempts at mending ties with Moscow. Washington has accused Moscow of interfering in foreign affairs and violating the Intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty (INF) by building a surface-to-air missile system that allegedly is in violation of the deal's restricted range of 310 miles to 3,400 miles. Russia, on the other hand, has charged the U.S. with the construction of a global missile shield that could be used offensively.

In Europe, in particular, they find themselves on opposing sides of growing tensions and defensive buildups conducted between Moscow and the NATO Western military alliance, which claimed allies along Russia's western borders.