Both the United States and Russia maintain fleets of airborne command posts – dubbed ‘Doomsday Planes’ – to continue nuclear warfare operations in case ground command stations are knocked out. The U.S. Air Force operates the E-4B Advanced Airborne Command Post – “Nightwatch,” a highly militarized version of the Boeing 747-200, four-engine, high-altitude passenger jet, capable of in-flight refueling for nearly unlimited endurance.
In addition to the E-4B, the U.S. Navy also operates the E-6B Mercury, based on a 707 airliner. It also serves as an airborne command post, but its primary purpose is to maintain secure communications between the national command authority (NCA) – which include the president and secretary of defense – and U.S. nuclear forces, in case other communications links are destroyed.
Meanwhile, Russia also employs two aircraft for this role, the older version built on the Ilyushin Il-80 aircraft, and a newer aircraft built on the Ilyushin II-96-400 wide-body commercial aircraft airframe, reportedly launched in 2016.
However, Russian media reports cast doubt on whether the newer plane ever actually entered service with the Russian Air Force, as they generally indicated that the older IL-80 airborne command post was still widely used.
Regardless, it now appears that the Russian Air Force will be fully upgrading their Doomsday Plane fleet to the II-96-400M model. Tass reported this week that the newest Airborne Command Post will be built on the II-96-400M modernized version of the quadjet airframe, manufactured by Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC).
The National Interest notes that this will provide the Russian Air Force an aircraft with much greater range than the aging IL-86, as well as likely improved avionics, electronic systems, and communications.
Referring to the older Doomsday Planes, Tass said, “It is scheduled to replace it with an Il-96-400M. It will allow to significantly increase the period of airborne combat duty and to extend the radius for troop command.”
Sources at UAC stated, according to The National Interest, that “the first flight of the IL-96-400M should take place next year, but it is unclear when the new Russian ‘Doomsday Plane’ will actually enter service.” The National Interest also notes that:
While more than 100 of the IL-86 airframes were constructed, as of 2012, only four of the aircraft remained in service and all with the Russian Air Force in the Airborne Command Post configuration. With this news it could be the end of the line for those four places.