bjtupolev2010528Tu-160 – “Blackjack”

Blackjack is a very popular card game. So popular, in fact, that NATO used it as an inspiration for one of their reporting names.

Not many people know this, but blackjack is not just a casino game; it is also the code name used by NATO for the Tupolev Tu-160, the world’s largest combat aircraft, largest supersonic aircraft and largest variable-sweep aircraft ever built.

This strategic bomber was created by the Soviet Tupolev Design Bureau. It entered service in 1987 and it was the last strategic bomber designed for the Soviet Union. The only plane with a higher empty weight and maximum speed is the North American XB-70 Valkyrie. The Russian Air Force has 16 of these at the moment, and there are plans to modernize 10 aircraft to Tu-160M standard.


This supersonic strategic bomber and missile carrier was built by Kazan Aircraft Production Association and is an impressive work of engineering. But how did NATO end up choosing “Blackjack” as a reporting name for this plane? We don’t know the details of this story, but we came up with our own arguments why the Tupolev Tu-160 deserves its nickname.


1. NATO uses code names to make it easier to identify military equipment of the Eastern Bloc and China. The first letter of each reporting name indicates the type of aircraft. For example, the “B” in “Blackjack” stands for “bomber aircraft”.

Now every card player knows that winning at blackjack is all about mastering your basic strategy. Surely, the outcome of wars and battles also depends on each country’s strategic moves. We hope it won’t be the case, but if Russia does decide to go to war, this aircraft will play a very important role, considering that it’s a strategic bomber.

The need to use smart strategies could be the first reason why this aircraft deserves to bear this reporting name.

2. But this is not the only thing blackjack and the Tupolev Tu-160 have in common. We discovered that they both have several variants. Over 100 variations of blackjack have been documented in the long history of this card game, which is pretty impressive!


The Tupolev Tu-160 is not doing so badly either. The aircraft has 9 different variants, including a proposed liquid hydrogen fueled version. Other variants are: an extended range version with NK-74 engines; one with new weaponry, built to carry the hypersonic Kh-90 missiles, featuring improved technology which doubles its combat effectiveness; and one very long-range escort fighter.

In addition to these powerful fighting machines, the Tupolev Tu-160 also has a strategic reconnaissance version and a commercial version.

3. The best players, as well as the people who brought something to the table and contributed to improving this game are all listed in the Blackjack Hall of Fame. You might think this has little to do with airplanes, but if you look at it closely, you’ll see that both the card game and the aircraft have been designed for greatness.

The Tu-160 has already beaten a few records, despite the struggles to overcome unreliable components and a lack of maintenance in the ‘90s. After some testing in late 2005, the aircraft was accepted into Russian service and some upgrades were announced.

In 2006, the first modernized Tu-160 was delivered. Engineers have now split the modernization process into two separate phases. The next step will be to update the communication and navigation systems; then 10 aircraft will receive new engines and further upgrades. It was announced that phase I would be completed by 2016, but now the project might be delayed until 2019.

Clearly, the Tupolev Tu-160 is a cool aircraft that deserved an equally cool nickname. We don’t know how the army specialists working for NATO ended up labeling it “Blackjack”. Maybe they were fans of the popular card game and played it on their lunch break; or maybe they picked it randomly. Either way, we think it’s a perfect fit!