The Russian strategic bomber fleet always received top priority right from the days of Josef Stalin. The Russian dictator had specifically ordered Andre Tupolev to design a long-range strategic bomber that could strike deep into the US and its allies. Stalin died in 1953, but Tupolev brought out the TU-22 which was given the code name Backfire. The plane first flew in 1969.
The TU-22 has many versions and the latest strategic version is the TU-22M. It has a top speed of 2,300 km/hr and a range of over 5000 km. It is a variable geometry aircraft with retractable wings. In terms of endurance and range, it does not compare with the Bear (TU-95) but it's more lethal with a speed that is more than twice the speed of sound.
The plane is ideally suited for a nuclear attack as well as a conventional bombing mission. It has a host of ECM on board that gives the bomber a protective shield against missiles.
The aircraft for long was the number one strike bomber, but now the TU-160 is getting pride of place. The TU-22 is a versatile bomber and intended for operations in Europe and Asia. It has nuclear capability and is capable of strategic missions against the United States. However, to strike deep into America, the Backfire would need to be refueled.
During the Strategic Arms Limitation talks (SALT II), the plane was a subject of hot debate. The US negotiating team could get a commitment from the Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev that the Backfire would not be upgraded for refueling capability. The US think tank considered the Backfire a lethal offensive aircraft. In real terms, it is a force multiplier.
Nearly 6 versions of the Backfire have been produced in Russia.
It is an inherently safe aircraft and very few crashes have been reported in almost 50 years of its operations. The aircraft is a tribute to Russian technology. The Indians were keen to operate it, but no deal as yet is worked out. Apart from the US, no other country in the world has produced a bomber even remotely equal to this.