The first competition for a supersonic strategic heavy bomber was launched in the Soviet Union in 1967. In 1972, the Soviet Union launched a new multi-mission bomber competition to create a new supersonic, variable-geometry ("swing-wing") heavy bomber with a maximum speed of Mach 2.3, in response to the US Air Force B-1 bomber project. The Tupolev design, named Aircraft 160M, with a lengthened blended wing layout and incorporating some elements of the Tu-144, competed against the Myasishchev M-18 and the Sukhoi T-4 designs.
Work on the new Soviet bomber continued despite an end to the B-1A and in the same year, the design was accepted by the government committee. The prototype was photographed by an airline passenger at a Zhukovsky Airfield in November 1981, about a month before the aircraft's first flight on 18 December 1981. Production was authorized in 1984, beginning at Kazan Aircraft Production Association.
The modernised aircraft were accepted into Russian service after testing in late 2005. The upgrade also integrated the ability to launch two new conventional versions of the long-range Kh-55 nuclear cruise missile—the Kh-101 and Kh-555. This resulted in the delivery of a new-built aircraft but the "first modernised Tu-160" in July 2006 did not receive new avionics, although they were planned for the new airframe.
The modernisation appeared to be split into two phases, concentrating on life extension with some initial communication–navigation updates, followed by 10 aircraft receiving new engines and capability upgrades after 2016. The first refitted aircraft was delivered to the VVS in May 2008; a follow-up contract to overhaul three aircraft in 2013 cost RUR3.4 billion (US$103M). The first updated M-model Tu-160 was delivered in December 2014. The phase I update was due to be completed by 2016, but industrial limitations may delay it to 2019 or beyond. Although Kuznetsov designed an NK-32M engine with improved reliability over the troublesome NK-32 engines, its successor company has struggled to deliver working units. Metallist-Samara JSC had not produced new engines for a decade when it was given a contract in 2011 to overhaul 26 of the existing engines, by two years later, only four were finished. Ownership and financial concerns hinder the prospects of a new production line; the firm insists it needs a minimum of 20 engines ordered per year but the government is only prepared to pay for 4–6 engines per year. A further improved engine has been bench tested and may enter production in 2016 or later.
On 29 April 2015, defence minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia was resuming production of the Tu-160. In May 2015, TASS reported that the Russian Air Force would purchase at least 50 new-build Tu-160s and that production of the aircraft would resume at the Kazan aviation plant. General Viktor Bondarev has said that development of the PAK DA will continue alongside resumption of production of the older model bomber.
On 16 November 2017, a newly assembled Tu-160M2 (built of unfinished airframe of Tu-160) was unveiled during the roll-out ceremony at the Kazan Aviation Plant, what signifies a restoration of certain production technologies such as electro-beam welding or titanium work reportedly lost after the termination of serial production in 1992. According to Dmitri Rogozin, the serial production of completely new airframes for the modernized Tu-160M2 should begin in 2019 with deliveries to the Russian Air Force in 2023.
The maiden flight of the newly assembled Tu-160M2 reportedly occurred at the end of 2017 followed by the flight testing that started in January 2018. The new Tu-160, named Petr Deinekin (after the first commanding officer of the Russian Air Force Gen. Pyotr Deynekin), performed its first public flight above the Kazan Aviation Plant on 25 January 2018, during president Vladimir Putin's visit. On the same day, a contract for ten Tu-160M2 bombers was signed.
Civilian version suggested
In January 2018, Vladimir Putin, while visiting the Kazan Aviation Plant, floated an idea of creating a civilian passenger version of Tu-160. Experts quoted by the news media were skeptical about the commercial and technological feasibility of such civilian conversion.