Russian authorities have launched an emergency investigation into one of the strangest military thefts in its history.
In what seems like an astonishing breach of security, thieves helped themselves to electrical equipment from inside one of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ ultra-secret Ilyushin Il-80 Maxdome “doomsday planes ” — the aircraft designed to act as a strategic command post in a nuclear shooting war.
The converted airliner, which plays a role analogous to the US Air Force’s E-4B National Airborne Operations Center, was at an airfield in southwest Russia when the caper took place, The War Zone reported.
Military incompetence of this nature, would be unforgivable anywhere else — imagine if someone broke into President Donald Trump’s Air Force One, or, a B-52 bomber laden with nuclear weapons.
The thought seems beyond comprehension. But in Putin’s Russia, anything is possible.
While it is not clear exactly when the raid was carried out, the embarrassing incident was reported by Russia’s state-run media outlet RIA Novosti.
According to their story, the Il-80 was undergoing maintenance when “unknown persons opened the cargo hatch” and stole what is described as 39 pieces of “radio equipment,” Radio Free Europe online reported.
The Rostov regional branch of Russia’s Interior Ministry said in a statement on December 9 that more than 1 million rubles (US$13,600) worth of equipment was stolen from the Ilyushin Il-80 plane at the Taganrog airfield, raising serious questions about the safety of Russia’s strategic military equipment.
Speaking to journalists, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the breach as an “emergency situation” and vowed that “measures will be taken to prevent this from happening again.”
Military experts say the plane is one of four Il-80s designed to be used as airborne command posts for the Russian president and other top officials in the event of a nuclear conflict.
Officials from the Taganrog Aviation Scientific and Technical Complex reported the theft to local police on December 4, the report said.
The Interior Ministry North Caucasus directorate reported on December 7 that the state-controlled Beriev Aircraft Company, which was carrying out maintenance of the Il-80 plane, had informed police that a cargo hatch breach had been discovered during an inspection of the aircraft, according to TASS.
Ren-TV, a Russian television station, reported that police investigators had found shoe and fingerprints aboard the aircraft.
As well as being an aircraft design bureau and manufacturer, specializing in amphibious aircraft, Beriev is responsible for outfitting and upgrading equipment in several different special mission aircraft operated by the Russian Aerospace Forces, War Zone reported.
In the event of a full-scale war, the Il-80 would be mobilized to transport the Russian President, who, during peacetime, relies on a civilian organization, Rossiya, for his aerial transport.
Unlike the presidential aircraft in the Rossiya fleet, which are essentially VIP versions of standard airliners, the Il-80 is more comprehensively protected against the effects of a nuclear detonation and is a fully integrated part of the command system of the Russian nuclear forces, War Zone reported.
As such, from his suite onboard the president is able to order the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles, from land or sea, or make other critical warfighting decisions.
The centerpiece of the Il-80’s mission suite is known as Zveno-S and includes an advanced communications suite, satellite antennas for which are carried in an enormous canoe-shaped fairing above the forward fuselage.
Two large underwing pods each carry a turbine engine that serves as an additional power supply source for the onboard equipment, War Zone reported. Numerous other antennas and fairings are littered around the fuselage, with a different configuration on each of the four aircraft.
A pod fitted on the port side of the rear fuselage contains the Fregat trailing wire antenna, a very low frequency (VLF) system for communications with submerged ballistic missile submarines, in much the same way as the US Navy’s E-6B Hermes.
The plane does not have any passenger windows, to prevent passengers from being blinded by atomic explosions.
They have been in service for 15 years and are due to be replaced by an aircraft with greater range – the Il-96-400M.
The new planes, designed to withstand electromagnetic pulses released by nuclear explosions, and include better shielding have updated electronics and communications systems.
Sources: War Zone, RIA Novosti, Radio Free Europe, The Guardian, Ren-TV