ABOARD AN E-4B NIGHTWATCH JET OVER THE GREAT PLAINS — Sixty years after the Cuban Missile Disaster introduced the world to the brink of nuclear battle, one of many U.S. army’s most unusual airplanes continues to be standing guard in case of disaster.
The E-4B Nationwide Airborne Operations Middle — often known as “Nightwatch” — is a flying workplace for the secretary of protection that makes use of 42 completely different communications programs that allow it to hook up with anybody on the earth.
It’s additionally constructed to resist a nuclear assault and maintain the federal authorities operating 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 Drive Occasions on April 26 obtained a uncommon alternative to board “GORDO14,” one among America’s 4 E-4Bs flown by the 595th Command and Management Group at Offutt Air Drive Base, Nebraska, for a two-hour spin over America’s heartland.
On its greatest day, the jet affords 5,000 sq. toes 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 industrial airliner, however this isn’t your common Boeing 747. Specialised masks hold 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 through which President Joe Biden determined to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, 595th Command and Management Group boss Col. Brian Golden informed 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 presently solely makes use of the E-4B for abroad journeys.
It may match a crew of 65 troops, from pilots with a number of years of expertise underneath their belts to communications system operators recent out of technical faculty. 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 Drive’s stock, it carries one of many service’s most superior and numerous suites of audiovisual and knowledge transmission know-how.
On the prepared
One E-4B is at all times on alert, that means its rows of boxy communications programs are on and one of many airplane’s 4 engines might be operating in case the crew wants to leap in at a second’s discover.
Collectively, the comms specialists determine which satellites, radars and antennas create the perfect 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 once they must be related, and so they’re continually sustaining these,” stated Lt. Col. Mike Shirley, the first Airborne Command Management Squadron commander. “They’re additionally receiving notifications, receiving messages and offering that info to the battle employees.”
Relying on the wants of the VIPs and joint battle staffers on board, the jets can attain any mobile phone or landline quantity. They’ll pull in radio and tv indicators, learn textual content messages and broadcast their very own video. And so they can talk with different army platforms all over the world, together with models on the bottom or undersea.
The Nightwatch can even 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.
“Now we have so many various issues that we are able to do, we’re capable of fill a spot at any time when one arises,” stated communications management officer Capt. Ryan La Rance, who manages the airmen in the back of the airplane. “Our army could be very highly effective, very deadly, but it surely doesn’t occur with out communication.”
An evolving mission
The Nightwatch hasn’t at all times been the Swiss Army knife of army comms.
Its mission was initially geared towards directing America’s nuclear belongings throughout the Chilly Battle, plus a couple of different technique of connecting nationwide leaders, Golden stated. That started to alter 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 operating and had numerous room and had numerous functionality with the human capital on board,” he stated.
Although its function in a nuclear disaster garners probably the most consideration, the fleet can come in useful in a traditional assault on the homeland, a debilitating energy grid failure or a devastating pure catastrophe.
“The airplane supplies a stage of bodily safety and resilience, and the nationwide command authority, that I believe continues to be fully related and acceptable,” stated Todd Harrison, a army aviation professional on the Middle for Strategic and Worldwide Research.
Army historian Robert Hopkins famous in Could 2021 that within the instant aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror assaults, President George W. Bush opted to remain on a VC-25A — designated “Air Drive One” when the commander in chief is on board — as an alternative 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 yet 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 an alternative take flight on a Doomsday airplane.
Think about if one other nation began firing cruise missiles into D.C., Harrison stated.
“That would persist for days. … You completely are going to wish to get your command authority out of the area,” he stated.
Golden doesn’t foresee any main additions to the jet’s capabilities, until some game-changing know-how arises that the army wants to handle. Because the Air Drive’s new B-21 Raider stealth bomber, Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missiles, air-launched cruise missiles and different nuclear belongings 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 path in flight so long as the crew is warned of a launch, he stated.
The colonel additionally stated he’s not anxious 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 couple of programs on the airplane, however the crew would possible nonetheless be capable to depend on a couple of dozen different instruments for connectivity.
“Now we have to remain forward of them,” he added.
The nationwide command fleet has garnered extra curiosity currently as America watches the Russo-Ukrainian battle unfold, involved that Moscow might introduce nuclear weapons into the battle. However Golden stated his group hasn’t modified its standard day by day routine.
“We’re monitoring conditions, we’re ensuring we’re up and operating on a regular basis,” Golden stated. “If there may be ever a menace to the continental United States, that’s once we could be a little bit extra involved.”
Becoming a member of the crew
The Doomsday fleet is run by a joint battle employees 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 army 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 discuss on radios,” he stated.
A number of airmen spoke in regards to the achievement of instantly affecting nationwide safety each 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 Drive 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 may release a jet for normal operations as an alternative of getting used for follow, although how that can impression 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 Drive for satellite tv for pc communications operators.
The fixed schedule of two weeks on alert and 4 weeks in an workplace job might be tiring, airmen stated. They’d additionally like extra meals vans in Nebraska. However the job on the jet is usually price it.
“Usually I’m ensuring the overall will get his e-mail,” La Rance stated. “This is among the few jobs within the Air Drive 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 potential.”
Now, the Nightwatch carries all the things it wants for any scenario it’d face. However can it final?
Golden stated the Air Drive ought to know throughout the subsequent 12 months or two whether or not it can pursue a extra environment friendly Nationwide Airborne Operations Middle from the beginning, or whether or not it can design new gear for the present jets, which may ultimately be moved to a different airframe.
Consultants who spoke with Air Drive Occasions recommended the army 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 may discuss 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. “Should you’ve obtained a key component 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 concept of mixing the E-4B, E-6B and probably the smaller C-32 government 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 completely different mission units, in order that they have completely completely different necessities,” Golden stated, including that combining them wouldn’t go away room for passengers. He additionally believes that making a single nationwide command airplane would reduce down the Pentagon’s choices for conserving 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 Drive plans to spend no less than $3.4 billion to analysis a brand new Doomsday airplane, although the value tag continues to be in flux. A growth 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 Battle 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 Drive continues to be contemplating its choices for a brand new Nightwatch.
The E-6B shall 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 Drive may take over that piece of the mission as an alternative.
As army competitors with China and Russia takes heart stage, Kristensen believes the Air Drive 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 Drive 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 mission is finished 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 completely different workplaces as Offutt scrambled to relocate folks after the flood. However what’s extra vital than a spot for management has been the impression on flyers and maintainers, who have 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 services at Offutt the place they will work, spend time with household and sleep whereas awaiting a name to motion.
The 595th’s workplaces and alert facility have 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 components of the unit underneath the identical roof.
Regardless of these setbacks, airmen on the E-4B stated they nonetheless discover that means within the mission and love their skill 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 labeled screens and took off into the clear Nebraska sky — coaching as soon as once more for the day everybody hopes by no means comes.
Rachel Cohen joined Air Drive Occasions as senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Drive Journal, Inside Protection, Inside Well being Coverage, the Frederick News-Publish (Md.), the Washington Publish, and others.