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FILE PHOTO: A Russian Tu-160 bomber flies during a joint Kazakh-Russian military exercise at Otar military range, some 150km (93 miles) west of Almaty, October 3, 2008. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

(reuters_tickers)

By Vladimir Soldatkin

KAZAN, Russia (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin praised a newly-built supersonic strategic bomber on Thursday after watching it in flight, saying it would beef up Russia's nuclear weapons capability.

Under a contract signed on Thursday, 10 of the modernised TU-160M nuclear bombers, codenamed Blackjacks by NATO, will be delivered to the Russian Air Force at a cost of 15 billion roubles (£188.14 million) each between now and 2027.

The giant swing-wing plane is a substantially modernised-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 at long distances.

"This is a serious step towards developing our hi-tech sphere and strengthening the country's ability to defend itself," said Putin, who said the new plane 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) non—stop without re-fuelling.

Putin, who is standing for re-election on March 18, a contest polls show he is likely to easily win, inspected the factory in Kazan where the new plane is being built as well as an airstrip, hangars and modernised workshops.

Under Putin, who has dominated the political landscape for the last 18 years, Russia has significantly increased defence 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 bombed forces opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, one of Moscow's closest Middle East allies.

Tupolev, the plane's manufacturer, says the modernised version will be 60 percent more effective than the older version with significant improvements to its weaponry, navigation and avionics.

Rinat Khamatov, the plant's chief welder, said Russia needed a modernised version of the bomber.

"The TU-160...is a weapon of deterrence and it is great that Russia is able to start making it again," he told Reuters.

Russia also aims to produce a modernised version of its Il-78 refuelling tanker, codenamed Midas by NATO, which can refuel the TU-160 mid-air, enabling it to reach any point on the planet.

(Editing by Andrew Osborn and Angus MacSwan)

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Reuters