- Both the US and Russia have special airborne presidential command posts to manage major hostilities.
- These are appropriately called the ‘Doomsday’ airborne command and control aircraft
- Is a nuclear war coming?
Nuclear war clouds are repeatedly appearing on the horizon. At least on five occasions, President Vladimir Putin or his foreign minister have used the ‘N’ word. Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling is part of Russia’s escalate-to-de escalate strategy that he himself was its author as a young official. NATO has increased its troop deployment in Eastern and Central Europe several times over. The United States Air Force has sent its strategic bombers, the B-52 and the Stealth B-2, to European airbases closer to Russia. The frequency of bomber flights has increased over Europe and the Pacific.
The Russian Doomsday Aircraft
The Russian President’s “Doomsday” aircraft is a specially configured Ilyushin Il-80 which is also referred to as “Flying Kremlin”. Interestingly it was seen flying low over Moscow early May 2022 during a Victory Day celebrations rehearsal. Two MiG-29s were seen escorting the Il-80 called “Maxdome”. Also, other significant participants in the flypast were the strategic Tu-95MS and Tu-160, fifth-generation Su-57 fighter and Tu-22M3 long-range bombers.
Il-80 Maxdome is a modified Ilyushin Il-86 airliner converted into an airborne command and control center, and the Russian presidential office in the sky. The aircraft reportedly made its first flight in 1985, and was inducted in 1987. Four were built, and three are still in service. Such aircraft are required for use if the ground-based command infrastructure were to get destroyed in the event of nuclear war or a major disaster, and the aircraft’s role is similar to that of the US Air Force (USAF) Boeing E-4B. Like the E-4B, the aircraft has a dorsal SATCOM canoe, believed to house advanced satellite communications equipment, and a trailing wire antenna mounted in the lower aft fuselage for very low frequency (VLF) radio transmission and reception. The aircraft can be refueled in flight. The aircraft has two podded external electrical generators to cater for additional on-board electronics.
Russia’s next doomsday plane would be the Il-96-400M. It will be an upgraded version of the four-engine civil airliner. The work is reportedly underway in Voronezh. The flight range of the new aircraft will be double that of its predecessor, and communicate effectively with strategic nuclear forces within roughly 6,000 kilometers. The aircraft will have a very powerful self-defense system and will always be escorted by air-defense fighters. The aircraft will have much better nuclear and thermal effects shielding, acoustic control, and upgraded air-conditioning to cool the more powerful heat generating electronics. The aircraft are likely to be inducted around 2026.
The American Doomsday Aircraft
In the US, the aircraft are officially called the National Airborne Operations Centres (NAOC). The aircraft are also equipped with a full set of traditional analogue flight and navigation instruments as they are less affected by cyberattack. The US airborne command posts have been operational since the early 1970s and can be termed as a Cold War legacy. The planes are essentially flying war rooms and are manned by military strategists and communication aides. They would support presidential decision-making.
The Boeing E-4, also called the “Night Watch” was evolved from the Boeing 747-200B, and was part of the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP) programme. E-4B made its first flight on 13 June 1973, and was inducted in service in 1974. The aircraft is meant to provide cyber secure command and control connectivity as provided in US governments Title 10. At least one E-4B is reportedly always on alert station, and satellite technology offers it worldwide communications using a wide range of frequencies covering from 14 kHz to 8.4 GHz. The aircraft’s main deck has been configured into several operational areas. These include designated areas for command and communications, briefing and conference, data analysis, and for rest. Traditionally, one E-4B was always standing by at Andrews Air Force Base in a Washington D.C. suburb, for quicker access to the president during a global crisis. When the US President travels outside of North America, an E-4B is positioned at an airbase near the President’s destination. The E-4B is normally used by the U.S. Secretary of Defence when traveling abroad on official visits. A more modern replacement for the E-4 is being developed. It is being called the Survivable Airborne Operations Center, briefing and conference, data analysis, and for rest.
There was a proposal to have a single multi-task aircraft to replace the E-4B, RC-135 Rivet Joint, E-3 Sentry, and E-8 Joint STARS. Northrop Grumman had proposed a Boeing 767-400ER platform to be called E-10 MC2A. It was to be built by a consortium between Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and Raytheon, as a central command authority for all air, land, and sea forces.
On the nuclear disarmament and stability front, the discussions on the newer versions of Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) cannot progress because of renewed frictions in Europe. The US, China and Russia are all modernizing their nuclear weapons. The Russian nuclear warnings in Ukraine are primarily to prevent NATO from entering conflict. Amidst all this, Russia’s plan to upgrade their Doomsday aircraft fleet is being watched by the West and is considered upping the nuclear ante.
No president has had the occasion to get into one for actual operations. Even after the 9/11 terror attacks, President George W Bush preferred to be on-board the VC-25A (Air Force One), instead of the E-4B. Till date China does not have any equivalent aircraft. Similarly, India perhaps does not need one as the chain of command and “fog-of-war” decision matrix for most countries is in place.
Did you subscribe to our daily Newsletter?
It’s Free! Click here to Subscribe