Sixty years after the Cuban Missile Disaster introduced the world to the brink of nuclear battle, one of many U.S. navy’s most unusual airplanes continues to be standing guard in case of disaster.
The E-4B Nationwide Airborne Operations Middle — also referred to as “Nightwatch” — is a flying workplace for the secretary of protection that makes use of 42 totally different communications programs that allow it to hook up with anybody on the planet.
It’s additionally constructed to resist a nuclear assault and hold the federal authorities working from the skies, incomes it one other eye-popping nickname: “the Doomsday airplane.”
However in a brand new period of geopolitics and know-how, does America nonetheless want the Nightwatch?
What’s the Doomsday airplane?
Air Power Occasions on April 26 received a uncommon alternative to board “GORDO14,” considered one of America’s 4 E-4Bs flown by the 595th Command and Management Group at Offutt Air Power Base, Nebraska, for a two-hour spin over America’s heartland.
On its finest day, the jet affords 5,000 sq. ft of cellular workplace area, full with a safe convention room, media briefing room and some cots. On its worst, it’s a hub for the president and different federal officers to orchestrate battle whereas remaining airborne for 3 days at a time.
Its pre-takeoff security briefing echoes that of any business airliner, however this isn’t your common Boeing 747. Specialised masks grasp within the cockpit to maintain pilots from being blinded by nuclear blasts, and its few home windows are coated in a mesh that protects in opposition to electromagnetic shockwaves from these explosions.
The 42-year-old fuselage bears witness to massive and small moments in presidential historical past. On Protection Secretary Lloyd Austin’s first Nightwatch flight, he joined a video convention wherein President Joe Biden determined to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, 595th Command and Management Group boss Col. Brian Golden instructed reporters.
Presidents Carter and Ronald Reagan are the one two presidents who’ve publicly flown on the E-4B.
Periodic upgrades and 30-day stretches of heavy upkeep take jets out of an already restricted rotation, so Secretary Austin at present solely makes use of the E-4B for abroad journeys.
It might match a crew of 65 troops, from pilots with a number of years of expertise below their belts to communications system operators contemporary out of technical college. A flight engineer, navigator, flight attendants and safety forces are a part of the aircrew as properly.
For one of many oldest platforms within the Air Power’s stock, it carries one of many service’s most superior and various suites of audiovisual and knowledge transmission know-how.
On the prepared
One E-4B is at all times on alert, which means its rows of boxy communications programs are on and one of many airplane’s 4 engines could possibly be working in case the crew wants to leap in at a second’s discover.
Collectively, the comms specialists resolve which satellites, radars and antennas create one of the best route to speak to the skin world.
“This jet doesn’t shut down — 24/7, 365, there’s people again there ensuring that these 42 disparate communication programs are related after they should be related, and so they’re continuously sustaining these,” stated Lt. Col. Mike Shirley, the first Airborne Command Management Squadron commander. “They’re additionally receiving notifications, receiving messages and offering that data to the battle workers.”
Relying on the wants of the VIPs and joint battle staffers on board, the jets can attain any cellular phone or landline quantity. They will pull in radio and tv alerts, learn textual content messages and broadcast their very own video. They usually can talk with different navy platforms world wide, together with models on the bottom or undersea.
The Nightwatch also can function a utility participant throughout pure disasters the place cellphone traces and different types of contact have been worn out. The jet can guarantee governors can attain the federal entities they want or bolster connections for first responders till common service is restored.
“We have now so many various issues that we will do, we’re capable of fill a niche every time one arises,” stated communications management officer Capt. Ryan La Rance, who manages the airmen behind the airplane. “Our navy may be very highly effective, very deadly, however it doesn’t occur with out communication.”
An evolving mission
The Nightwatch hasn’t at all times been the Swiss Military knife of navy comms.
Its mission was initially geared towards directing America’s nuclear property through the Chilly Conflict, plus a number of different technique of connecting nationwide leaders, Golden stated. That started to vary with the appearance of the Web and satellite tv for pc communications.
“Round 9/11, we began having an increasing number of necessities placed on us as a result of they realized that this platform was very survivable, it was at all times up and working and had a variety of room and had a variety of functionality with the human capital on board,” he stated.
Although its function in a nuclear disaster garners essentially the most consideration, the fleet can come in useful in a standard assault on the homeland, a debilitating energy grid failure or a devastating pure catastrophe.
“The airplane gives a degree of bodily safety and resilience, and the nationwide command authority, that I believe continues to be solely related and applicable,” stated Todd Harrison, a navy aviation skilled on the Middle for Strategic and Worldwide Research.
Army historian Robert Hopkins famous in Could 2021 that within the fast aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror assaults, President George W. Bush opted to remain on a VC-25A — designated “Air Power One” when the commander in chief is on board — as a substitute of leaping onto an accessible E-4B throughout a cease at Offutt.
“One other E-4B was caught on digicam launching out of [Joint Base Andrews, Maryland] proper after the assaults, leading to a rash of conspiracy theories, and one more one was shortly airborne over the Midwest,” Hopkins stated.
In an excessive disaster, he added, it seems that the president and their advisers would as a substitute take flight on a Doomsday airplane.
Think about if one other nation began firing cruise missiles into D.C., Harrison stated.
“That might persist for days. … You completely are going to want to get your command authority out of the area,” he stated.
Golden doesn’t foresee any main additions to the jet’s capabilities, except some game-changing know-how arises that the navy wants to handle. Because the Air Power’s new B-21 Raider stealth bomber, Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missiles, air-launched cruise missiles and different nuclear property come on-line, E-4B crews will discover ways to join with these programs as properly.
The Nightwatch is “already poised” to deal with extra superior hypersonic weapons that may change route in flight so long as the crew is warned of a launch, he stated.
The colonel additionally stated he’s not frightened about the opportunity of China or Russia interfering with the E-4B’s comms suite. An adversary may degrade or attempt to shut down a number of programs on the airplane, however the crew would seemingly nonetheless have the ability to depend on a number of dozen different instruments for connectivity.
“We have now to remain forward of them,” he added.
The nationwide command fleet has garnered extra curiosity these days as America watches the Russo-Ukrainian battle unfold, involved that Moscow could introduce nuclear weapons into the battle. However Golden stated his group hasn’t modified its traditional every day routine.
“We’re monitoring conditions, we’re ensuring we’re up and working on a regular basis,” Golden stated. “If there’s ever a menace to the continental United States, that’s after we could be slightly extra involved.”
Becoming a member of the crew
The Doomsday fleet is run by a joint battle workers of 90 service members, about half of whom are airmen; 244 ops crew members, like flight engineers, flight attendants and comms operators; and 277 maintainers. The jet can fly with as much as 112 folks aboard.
Senior Airman Dallas Bounce stated he put Offutt on the prime of his base want checklist when he graduated from primary navy coaching. He snagged it and was assigned to his first job as a Nightwatch communications programs operator.
“I by no means thought I’d be doing something like this in my life … getting paid to fly and speak on radios,” he stated.
A number of airmen spoke concerning the achievement of instantly affecting nationwide safety every day, and avoiding a typical 9-to-5 job.
“Generally you get four-star generals on the cellphone, on these conferences, making selections,” stated La Rance, the communications management officer. “I have an effect on who they’re speaking to and the way they’re listening to it.”
Proper now, pilots go to Miami, Florida, for 30 days of coaching in a Boeing 747-200 simulator additionally utilized by E-4B flight attendants and Air Power One crews. Aviators then present their proficiency at air refueling, nighttime operations and different typical duties throughout a number of flights earlier than the ultimate qualification journey.
“Our pilots are going to have the ability to follow one thing that’s extremely difficult, which is air refueling this plane,” Shirley stated. “That’s an enormous, big functionality for us.”
Communications operators can spend as much as 9 months in coaching, relying on the complexity of their job.
For the primary time in this system’s historical past, airmen may quickly have an E-4B simulator — scheduled to open by June 1 — that’s anticipated to deal with as much as 80% of the unit’s coaching. That can liberate a jet for normal operations as a substitute of getting used for follow, although how that can affect fleet readiness continues to be unclear.
Regardless of the draw of a novel mission, Golden stated retaining skilled communications specialists and maintainers is a perennial concern. The Nightwatch program additionally competes with the House Power for satellite tv for pc communications operators.
The fixed schedule of two weeks on alert and 4 weeks in an workplace job may be tiring, airmen stated. They’d additionally like extra meals vans in Nebraska. However the job on the jet is usually value it.
“Usually I’m ensuring the final will get his e-mail,” La Rance stated. “This is likely one of the few jobs within the Air Power the place a comm officer like me will get to fly within the airplane. I’m going to dwell that as much as the fullest extent doable.”
Now, the Nightwatch carries every part it wants for any scenario it’d face. However can it final?
Golden stated the Air Power ought to know throughout the subsequent yr or two whether or not it would pursue a extra environment friendly Nationwide Airborne Operations Middle from the beginning, or whether or not it would design new gear for the present jets, which may ultimately be moved to a different airframe.
Consultants who spoke with Air Power Occasions steered the navy mix the E-4B and its shut counterpart, the Navy’s E-6B Mercury, onto a single airframe for extra flexibility if issues go south.
Whereas the E-4B is a flying command heart for civilian management and might speak to nuclear bombers, missiles and submarines, solely the E-6B can order these weapons to launch.
“Why wouldn’t you wish to add that to your E-4? It makes excellent sense,” Harrison stated of nuclear launch capabilities. “If you happen to’ve received a key aspect of your command authority on the airplane, who could be giving the orders, then why not have the bodily technique of distributing these orders on that airplane?”
The providers had explored the thought of mixing the E-4B, E-6B and doubtlessly the smaller C-32 govt transport jets right into a single fleet. It seems that plan has fizzled out.
Officers argue the three wouldn’t work collectively, and price range paperwork now not describe the “Survivable Airborne Operations Middle,” or SAOC, as an airframe to consolidate the E-4B and E-6B.
“Completely totally different mission units, so that they have completely totally different necessities,” Golden stated, including that combining them wouldn’t depart room for passengers. He additionally believes that making a single nationwide command airplane would minimize down the Pentagon’s choices for protecting involved.
Harrison contends that know-how has shrunk sufficient over the previous few a long time that the Pentagon may stuff extra functionality right into a smaller airframe.
The Air Power plans to spend not less than $3.4 billion to analysis a brand new Doomsday airplane, although the worth tag continues to be in flux. A improvement contract for the fleet’s substitute is due out in mid-2023, a couple of decade earlier than the airframe’s estimated lifespan of 115,000 flight hours expires.
The Conflict Zone not too long ago reported that the Navy is shopping for three extended-length C-130J-30s from Lockheed Martin for testing as its new E-6B “Take Cost and Transfer Out” (TACAMO) airplane, whereas the Air Power continues to be contemplating its choices for a brand new Nightwatch.
The E-6B will probably be configured to ship ballistic missile launch messages to nuclear-armed submarines, however to not air-launched or underground nukes because it does now — resulting in hypothesis that the Air Power may take over that piece of the mission as a substitute.
As navy competitors with China and Russia takes heart stage, Kristensen believes the Air Power will find yourself changing the Nightwatch with a equally iconic command-and-control jet.
“There’s a good quantity of symbolism in it,” he stated.
After the flood
In March 2019, a flood devastated Offutt Air Power Base. Whereas its crumbling runway is renovated, some E-4B crew members should commute about an hour from Omaha to Lincoln Airport, their momentary airfield till the 18-month venture is completed this fall. Others dwell in Lincoln for 2 weeks at a time for extra stability.
Golden stated his predecessor needed to work out of 12 totally different workplaces as Offutt scrambled to relocate folks after the flood. However what’s extra vital than a spot for management has been the affect on flyers and maintainers, who had been displaced from their hangar, unfold throughout a number of workplaces on base and now should work from two airfields.
Airmen must wait three years or longer for brand-new amenities at Offutt the place they’ll work, spend time with household and sleep whereas awaiting a name to motion.
The 595th’s workplaces and alert facility had been irreparably broken within the freak flood that engulfed about one-third of Offutt; the bottom is utilizing it as an alternative to overtake its campus and convey elements of the unit below the identical roof.
Regardless of these setbacks, airmen on the E-4B stated they nonetheless discover which means within the mission and love their capability to fly.
“We’re proving to the world … ‘Look, [the U.S.] can do our enterprise,’” Golden stated.
With the media flight behind them, airmen climbed aboard GORDO14, booted up their categorized screens and took off into the clear Nebraska sky — coaching as soon as once more for the day everybody hopes by no means comes.
This story first appeared in Air Power Occasions, our sister publication.
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