Deadly fire destroyed Russia’s top air defense research lab

A major fire broke out today at a secret Russian military research facility, killing several people, injuring others and leaving extensive damage in its wake. The Tver facility, 200 km northwest of Moscow, is responsible for a variety of air defense-focused research, but would cross between the space and military fields. Most notably, he would study stealth technologies – and, importantly, the counters to use against them.

Local media reports of the fire at the Aerospace Defense Troops Central Scientific Research Institute, or TSNII VVKO, in central Tver do not provide a definitive toll, with the local Tvernews sources indicating that at least one individual lost his life and that at least 16 others were injured. Meanwhile, Interfax reports two dead and 20 injured. For his part, the Moscow time is reports six dead in the fire.

The fire started this morning on the third floor of the site’s main building before spreading rapidly, according to Tvernews. The same source described fire crews from several different stations responding. Despite their efforts, some reports now say the building was destroyed.

At least one video from the scene shows much of the building’s roof completely collapsed:

Another video was posted with the unconfirmed claim that five people died and 35 others were evacuated:

The Tverigrad.ru website, another local news source, showed people trying to escape through the building’s windows, and other fire victims lying outside, possibly recovering from smoke inhalation.

At this stage, there is no indication of how the fire could have started.

The location of Tver in the oblast of the same name in western Russia. GOOGLE EARTH

Directly attached to the Russian Defense Ministry, the work of the Central Scientific Research Institute is essentially theoretical and includes the development of air and space defense systems. The institute conducts research on navigation, command and control, and other systems, as well as studies on stealth aircraft.

Part of what we know about the exact work of the TSNII VVKO comes from a TV documentary on the Zvezda TV channel of the Ministry of Defense in 2018.

In this documentary, the institute’s work on the development of air defense systems is announced, in particular, including efforts to counter specific Western air-launched weapons.

As part of this mission, the institute is responsible for collecting information on the latest adversary systems. The building was therefore full of replicas of accurate weapons used to test Russian air defense systems and for other development purposes.

Among the wide range of models seen in the documentary were the AGM-65 Maverick, the AGM-84H Standoff Land Attack Missile – Expanded Response (SLAM-ER), the AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missile (ACM), and the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). Additionally, there were models of two American hypersonic missiles on display, one of which is clearly a full-size replica of the Boeing HyFly. The other resembled a replica of the same company’s scramjet-powered X-51A, although it could potentially be intended to represent one of the competing Hypersonic Breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) designs.

A full-size model of the Boeing HyFly hypersonic vehicle at TSNII VVKO. ZVEZDA TV
A mockup of another US hypersonic missile, apparently a scramjet-powered design. ZVEZDA TV

Outside of the air-to-ground domain, the institute also showcased what were described as “elements” of the US Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) missile. This confirms that beyond air defense systems, the institute provides its expertise to designers of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the GBI’s preferred targets.

An apparent full-size GBI missile mockup of the missile body on the TSNII VVKO test range. ZVEZDA TV

Along the same lines, the documentary also shows models of different types of decoys carried by Russian ICBMs and designed to counter missile defense systems.

Off-scale models included various combat aircraft operated by potentially hostile nations, including the AH-64 attack helicopter, the B-2, F/A-18, F-22, F-35 and Rafale.

In addition to these research aids, the institute also has at least one fragment of the surface skin of the F-117 stealth jet that was shot down over Yugoslavia in 1999. Clearly one of its assets the more valuable, it also points to the institute’s work on countering American stealth technologies.

Indeed, looking around a mock-up of a B-2 stealth bomber, Sergei Nesterov, a senior research associate, says “every millimeter” of available F-117 wreckage has been studied and designers of Russian radars benefited from their discoveries.

Screenshot from Russian state television

As a result, Nesterov claims, the B-2 “stopped being stealthy for us”. This argument is highly fanciful, of course, with the F-117 and B-2 employing entirely different approaches to low observability, but there is no doubt that the development of counters with stealth technology has been a priority for designers. Russian weapons and radars.

Nesterov also claims that the B-2 model predates the unveiling of the stealth bomber in 1988 by “about a decade”. In turn, he says, the Russian study of the pattern helped bring the F-117 down more than a decade later. Again, this is deliberately misleading and probably has little or no basis in reality: after all, in addition to entirely different design philosophies, the Serbs did not rely on modern radars or missiles from Russian-made to shoot down the F-117 in the top spot. Again, however, this underscores the concern with which stealth aircraft and missiles, in general, have been viewed by Russian air defense forces.

While the institute housed these models, it uses them on its own test range, which is equipped with a network of radar systems capable of establishing the radio frequency properties of these weapons and aircraft at different bandwidths. These data, in turn, are supplied to the various design bureaus responsible for Russian air defense systems.

A so-called reference object suspended above the ground at the TSNII VVKO test range, possibly used for radar calibration during signature studies. ZVEZDA TV

In the words of Yury Borisov, then Russian Deputy Defense Minister, now Deputy Prime Minister, the institute deals with “trends” and “antidotes” in Western weapons systems.

While the cause of today’s fire at TSNII VVKO, and the extent of the final damage remain unclear, it seems almost certain that the fire will have dealt a significant blow to this highly specialized Russian research program, especially whether some of the slain were experts in their field.

As the fighting in Ukraine intensifies and increasingly sophisticated new weapons begin to enter the Ukrainian inventory, and with growing hostility towards the West in general, and NATO in particular, the study how best to counter the latest Western weapons systems will only become more important for Russia.

Institutes like TSNII VVKO may well be busier than ever.

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