KAZAN, Russia (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin on Thursday praised a newly constructed supersonic strategic bomber after seeing it in flight, saying it would strengthen Russia's nuclear weapons capability.
According to a contract signed on Thursday, 10 of the modernized nuclear bombers TU-160M, codenamed Blackjacks by NATO, will be delivered to the Russian Air Force at a cost of 15 billion rubles ($ 269 million) each from here to 2027.
The giant oscillating-wing aircraft is a substantially modernized version of a Soviet-era bomber that the USSR would have deployed in the event of a nuclear war with the West to deliver nuclear weapons over long distances.
"This is a serious step towards developing our high-tech sphere and strengthening the country's ability to defend itself," said Putin, who said the new aircraft would strengthen Russia's nuclear weapons capability.
The TU-160M is capable of carrying 12 cruise missiles or 12 short-range nuclear missiles and can fly 12,000 km (7,500 miles) without stopping without refueling.
Putin, who is running for re-election on March 18, a poll shows he is likely to win easily, inspected the factory in Kazan where the new aircraft is being built, as well as a modernized airstrip, hangars and workshops .
Under Putin, who has dominated the political landscape for the past 18 years, Russia has significantly increased defense spending and used military force in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria.
Existing versions of the TU-160 have flown from bases in Russia to Syria where they have shelled opposing forces to President Bashar al-Assad, one of Moscow's closest allies in the Middle East.
Tupolev, the aircraft manufacturer, says that the modernized version will be 60 percent more effective than the previous version with significant improvements in its armaments, navigation and avionics.
Rinat Khamatov, the plant's chief welder, said Russia needed a modernized version of the bomber.
"The TU-160 … is a deterrent and it's great that Russia can start doing it again," he told Reuters.
Russia also aims to produce a modernized version of its refueling tank Il-78, code-named Midas from NATO, which can refuel the TU-160 in the air, allowing it to reach to any point on the planet.
Edition of Andrew Osborn and Angus MacSwan