By Bad Seed
The Tu-22 'Blinder' had not proved particularly successful, in some respects being inferior to the earlier Tu-16 'Badger'. Its range and take-off performance, in particular, were definite weak points. Even as the 'Blinder' was entering service, OKB Tupolev began work on an improved successor.
As with the contemporary Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 'Flogger' and Sukhoi Su-17 'Fitter' projects, the advantages of variable-geometry wings seemed attractive, allowing a combination of short take-off performance, efficient cruising, and good high-speed, low-level ride. The result was a new swing-wing aircraft called Samolët 145, derived from the Tu-22, with some features borrowed from the abortive Tu-98 'Backfin'.
The first prototype, Tu-22M0, first flew 30 August 1969. The resultant aircraft was first seen by NATO around that time. For several years it was believed in the West that its service designation was Tu-26. During the SALT negotiations of the 1980s the Soviets insisted it was the Tu-22M. At the time, Western authorities suspected that the misleading designation was intended to suggest that it was simply a derivative of the Tu-22 rather than the far more advanced and capable weapon it actually was. It now appears that Tu-22M was indeed the correct designation, and the linkage to the earlier Tu-22 was intended by Tupolev to convince the Soviet government that it was an economical follow-on to the earlier aircraft. Actually, the fore gear leg and the bomb bay cover were inherited from the original Tu-22. (Much the same happened in the U.S. in the 1950s with aircraft like the Lockheed F-94C Starfire, originally F-97, and the North American F-86D Sabre, originally the F-95.)
Only nine of the earliest Tu-22M0 preproduction aircraft were produced, followed by nine more Tu-22M1 pilot-production craft in 1971 and 1972. They were known as Backfire-A' by NATO.
The first major production version, entering production 1972, was the Tu-22M2 ('Backfire-B'), with longer wings and an extensively redesigned, area ruled fuselage (raising the crew complement to four), twin NK-22 engines with F-4 Phantom II-style intakes, and new undercarriage carrying the landing gear in the wing glove rather than in large pods. These were most commonly armed with long-range cruise missiles/anti-ship missiles, typically one or two AS-4 'Kitchen' anti-shipping missiles. Some Tu-22M2s were later requipped with more powerful NK-23 engines and redesignated Tu-22M2Ye. In service, the Tu-22M2 was known to its crews as Dvoika ('Deuce'). It was more popular than the Tu-22, thanks to its superior performance and improved cockpit, but its comfort and reliability still left much to be desired.
The later Tu-22M3 (NATO 'Backfire C'), which first flew in 1976 and entered service in 1983, had new NK-25 engines with substantially more power, wedge-shaped intakes similar to the MiG-25, wings with greater maximum sweep, and a recontoured nose housing a new Leninets PN-AD radar and NK-45 nav/attack system, which provides much-improved low-altitude flight (although not true nap-of-the-earth flying). It had a revised tail turret with a single cannon, and provision for an internal rotary launcher for the AS-16 'Kickback' missile, similar to the American AGM-69 SRAM. The new aircraft had much better performance than the -M2. It was nicknamed Troika ('Trio'), although apparently it is sometimes referred to as 'Backfire' in Russian service.
One area of controversy surrounding the Tu-22M is its capacity for aerial refueling. As built, the Tu-22M has provision for a retractable in-flight refueling probe in the upper part of the nose. This was allegedly removed as a result of the SALT negotiations, although it can be easily reinstated if needed, and in fact a pre-production Tu-22M1 (Backfire-A) with refuelling probe can be seen at Riga Airport today.
A Tu-22M (note fuelling probe) seen at Riga
A Tu-22M (note fuelling probe) seen at Riga
A small number, perhaps 12, of Tu-22M3s were converted to Tu-22M3(R) or Tu-22MR standard, with Shompol side-looking radar and other ELINT equipment. A dedicated electronic warfare variant, designated Tu-22MP, was built in 1986, but to date only two or three prototypes have apparently been built. Some surviving 'Backfires' have had equipment and avionic upgrades to Tu-22ME standard (which does not have a separate NATO reporting name at this time).
Total production of all variants was 497 including pre-production aircraft.