Did you know that the United States has four "Doomsday Planes"? A holdover from the Cold War, these aircraft are designed to act as a "National Airborne Operations Center" and are still going strong after more than 40 years. They fly the U.S. Defense Secretary, and other key staff, around the world all the time.
Designed to keep the government operating and act as mobile command centers in case of a disaster like a nuclear attack, these jets are very high-tech, and their only job is to keep communications going for both civilian and military operations, should the unthinkable happen.
Have we whetted your appetite to learn more about them? Then find all you'll need to know about these incredible aircraft.
What is the U.S. "Doomsday Plane"?
The "Doomsday Planes", otherwise known as the "Nightwatch" aircraft, or more accurately the Boeing E-4B "Advanced Airborne Command Post" (AACP), a militarized version of the Boeing 747-200, are strategic command and control military aircraft flown by the United States Air Force (USAF).
Designed and built for the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP) program, the fleet of four aircraft consists of a series of Boeing 747-200Bs that have been specially converted to become the E-4 series.
These aircraft are nominally similar to Air Force One but have been outfitted with the most complete and sophisticated spectrum of communications equipment that has ever flown.
Each "Doomsday Plane" is equipped with various communication tools. These consist of very low-frequency antenna that can be trailed up to five miles (8km) behind the aircraft while in flight. Super high-frequency and "Milstar" communications equipment are also housed on top of the aircraft's fuselage within its distinctive dome or bulge.
According to the United States Space Force, "Milstar" is a "joint service satellite communications system that provides secure, jam-resistant, worldwide communications to meet essential wartime requirements for high-priority military users. The multi-satellite constellation links command authorities with a wide variety of resources, including ships, submarines, aircraft and ground stations".
In essence, each of these technologies guarantees that they can communicate with armed units wherever in the world. Not just low- and high-frequency, but nearly all communication levels, from entirely open to private. Additionally, each aircraft has Internet access and the ability to communicate with anyone, anywhere via radio and telephone.
Information on exactly how the plane can withstand a nuclear attack is classified, but it is known that the computers and wiring onboard are hardened with thermal and nuclear shielding. The cockpit contains analog controls, and workstations are outfitted with hardwired phones and monitors designed to operate in the event of a nuclear electromagnetic pulse. There are no windows besides the cockpit to protect the communications system from the outside heat or an electromagnetic pulse.
The aircraft can be refueled mid-flight during times of war. They can optimize their flying time, except for crew resupply, of course.
Additionally, each window in the cockpit has an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) shielding grid to protect the sensitive systems of the plane from harm.
For the "National Command Authority", which consists of the President of the United States, the Secretary of Defense, and any succeeding officials, each E-4 is intended to serve as a resilient mobile command post. The 595th Command and Control Group's 1st Airborne Command and Control Squadron, based at Offutt Air Force Base, not far from Omaha, Nebraska, operates the four E-4B aircraft.
When in use, an E-4B is referred to as a "National Airborne Operations Center."
The fleet was conceived and built during a time when the doctrine of "Mutual Assured Destruction" meant that nuclear war was a clear and present danger, and to many, it may seem like overkill today. However, these aircraft are always on ready alert regardless of the reduced fears of a nuclear holocaust today.
The plane's crew is stationed at a nearby barracks just in case the plane needs to get airborne with urgency.
What does the "Doomsday Plane" do?
We've already covered the aircraft's primary purpose in the section above, but it also serves as a flying "home" of sorts for the crew onboard.
Each aircraft has three main internal decks or floors. The "battle staff" are kept on the middle deck, and during times of crisis, officers from all the military services collaborate in the staff room on this floor. The main cabin includes a soundproof video conference room and a separate room where the Secretary of Defense can sleep.
Each officer is capable of acting in place of higher-level executives. When they work together, these guys understand the "big picture" of military operations. They are also familiar with the country's current infrastructure, including its electricity grids.
They are also very knowledgeable about matters relating to national intelligence and can brief senior leaders on nearly anything, at least in theory.
Although dispersed throughout the aircraft, the operations crew is mainly found at the back of the aircraft. It's interesting to note that some of these, primarily the controllers, are not just operators; they are also certified to fix and maintain any of the machinery they are required to utilize.
An area originally designed as a first-class lounge now contains six passenger seats and two sleeping bunks, which is used as a break area for the 12 aircraft mechanics who accompany each aging plane on every trip.
To ensure crew preparedness during lengthy operations, the crew will alternate between operating and resting. Pilots, communications specialists, navigators, flight engineers, and attendants make up crews. The battle staff makes up the remainder of the crew.
When was the "Doomsday Plane" made?
Of the current aircraft, the original two started out as a set of 747-200 airframes that were built to be outfitted as commercial jetliners. When the airline failed to fulfill the order, Boeing offered the airframes to the United States Air Force as part of a package to replace the outdated EC-135J "National Emergency Airborne Command Post" (NEACP).
The "Air Force Electronic Systems Division" granted Boeing a contract in February 1973 for two unequipped E-4A aircraft with four Pratt and Witney JT9D engines as part of the 481B NEACP program. A third aircraft was added in July 1973.
At the Boeing facility south of Seattle, Washington, the first E-4A was finished in 1973. E-Systems installed the three aircraft's intermediate equipment after they were awarded the contract, and the first finished E-4A was delivered to Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, in July 1973.
The following two were delivered in October 1973 and 1974, respectively. The GE F103 engine, which was later made standard and upgraded to the first two E-4 aircraft, helped the third E-4 stand apart from the rest. The A-model functionally held the same equipment as the EC-135, but it had greater room capacity and could stay in the air longer.
According to a study from November 1973, the program cost was expected to be $548 million for seven 747s, six of which would serve as operational command posts and one would be used for research and development.
A fourth aircraft was ordered in December 1973, and it was given the designation E-4B after being outfitted with more modern hardware. The first E-4B (Air Force Serial Number 75-0125), which stood out from the earlier model by having a sizable streamlined radome on the dorsal side just below the upper deck, was delivered by Boeing on December 21, 1979. This houses the super-high-frequency satellite antenna for the aircraft.
All three E-4As have since been converted to E-4B versions as of January of 1985.
While exact details are obviously a closely guarded secret, it is believed that the E-4B's was thought have been "hardened" against the effects of a nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) from a nuclear bomb and promised a significant improvement in communications capability over the previous model. By hardening the aircraft, EMP protection was provided for all onboard electronics and wiring.
Each E-4B aircraft was expected to cost around $250 million to roll out (in fiscal 1998 constant dollars).
For the ongoing modernization of the E-4B fleet, the Air Force granted Boeing a five-year, $2 billion contract in 2005. The Air Force must pay about $160,000 per hour to operate the E-4 in addition to the price of the procurement and modification.
Will the U.S. "Doomsday Plane" ever be replaced?
The "Doomsday Planes" are hardy aircraft, but they are aging. In fact, they are already 20 years past their expected lifespans. To this end, there are plans afoot to seek a suitable replacement for them in the not too distant future.
However, the search for a replacement has been put off more than once, and the Air Force said in early 2022 that the program is still "in the very early stages of development."
In its budget request for 2023, the Air Force asked for about $203 million for research, development, testing, and evaluation for the SAOC. This is more money than it asked for in 2022 and 2021, when it requested about $95 million and $50 million, respectively. And funding is expected to grow in the coming years.
In its review of the 2023 NDAA, the HASC subpanel on strategic forces wrote that it is "concerned" about what it sees as slow progress and the E-4's "availability and capability."
To do something about this, the subcommittee wants to ask the Air Force to report how it plans to keep the NAOC going and put the SAOC to work.
“This is a continuing concern based off of how long it’s taken to get a replacement program on record. So, at this point, we’re concerned about how long the NAOC is going to be able to hold on and when the SAOC is actually going to be up and in place,” a committee aide told reporters in a background briefing June 7. “So that is just kind of continuing to want to get more information from the Air Force about when that capability is, what its characteristics are for the SAOC, and also what the transition plan is and how we’re going to sustain the NAOC as long as we need it.”
So, for now, the future of the existing "Doomsday Plane" seems secure for at least a few more years.
Facts about the Doomsday Plane
We've covered a lot of ground above, but if you are after some more information on these incredible aircraft, here are some interesting facts you can sink your teeth into.
1. The E-4B "Nightwatch" is allegedly a far more capable aircraft than "Airforce One"
You can think of the "Doomsday Plane" as a heavily upgraded version of Air Force One. That is because it's not just a regular jetliner, it is a military command center that can fly and is strategically focused. To this end, the E-4B is a very capable military plane effectively wearing the guise of a civilian aircraft.
The enormous multi-million dollar planes are thought to be immune to most forms of radiation, can weigh up to 800,000 pounds (362,874 kg), and have three decks or floors. They are also swift for their size, with a purported top speed of 602 mph (969 kph).
2. It is made to withstand nuclear weapon blasts
Each E-4B is equipped with an electrical system that can accommodate sophisticated electronics and a range of communications tools and is shielded from electromagnetic pulses' effects. Senior executives can communicate globally via the airborne operations center thanks to an innovative satellite communications technology.
Shielding against thermal and radioactive impacts, acoustic management, a better technical control facility, and an improved air-conditioning system for cooling electrical components are some other enhancements.
To maintain this suite of sophisticated gubbins, you also need a qualified group of I.T. analysts.
3. It costs a lot to keep these airplanes in the air
Allegedly the expense of operating a "Nightwatch" is sky-high, with costs of around $160,000 per hour when in flight. This includes all the usual costs like fuel, etc., and the very hefty human resource costs.
The President, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary would board an E-4B and depart during a catastrophic occurrence at a top-secret location. Since it takes a large team to operate the aircraft and ensure the safety of the presidential party, they would be accompanied by a 112-person crew if and whenever used for real.
4. Just like "Battlestar Galactica", the "Doomsday Plane" is hackproof thanks to its use of analog equipment
Traditional analog flying instruments, which the E-4B has installed, are less vulnerable to harm from an electromagnetic pulse bombardment. Additionally, hackers have a much harder time breaking into antiquated communication systems and apparatus since they are not connected to the internet.
This is a very good thing, as the "Doomsday Plane", also referred to as the National Airborne Operation Center, is specifically built to communicate with anybody, on any device, from anywhere in the world. Such an aircraft must be reliable and as safe from disruption as far as reasonably practicable.
5. One of them is always available 24/7, 365 days a year
Since catastrophe can never be predicted, a "Doomsday Plane" is always on standby. Not only that, but, allegedly, while traveling abroad, the President is always accompanied by or in close proximity to a Doomsday Plane at all times, at one of the many selected bases around the world.
A watch crew is stationed on the "cocked" or "on alert" E-4B 24 hours a day to monitor all communications systems while it waits for a launch order (so-called "klaxon launch"). The crew members who aren't on duty will be in the alert barracks or another base area.
President Clinton ordered the aircraft to stay at Offutt unless needed, ending the 24-hour alert posture at Andrews Air Force Base. However, relief crews are still stationed at Andrews and Wright-Patterson Air Force Bases.
6. Apparently the "Doomsday Plane" was actually in use during 9/11
While it has not been confirmed nor denied, allegedly, an aircraft resembling an E-4B may have flown over the White House on September 11, 2001 - the day of the terrorist attacks in New York City. News organizations and civilian bystanders widely reported this at the time.
Whether or not this really was a "Doomsday Plane" or not has not, and probably never will, be officially disclosed.
7. No one is allowed to discuss it
Technically speaking, the "Doomsday Plane's" existence is not a top secret. However, the United States Air Force keeps a thick shroud of secrecy around these aircraft and has refused to talk about them with the public or the media in any real detail.
The "Doomsday Plane" that is always stationed in Nebraska is the only one that has been publicly acknowledged, and to which press have been given access.
8. It's possible to refuel them midair
The soaring giant can hover for days on end without needing to land. In times of conflict, the crew can refuel the plane while it is in the air. In the event that a successful landing is too risky, the aircraft also contains an emergency communication system.
Its ability to stay in the air for a long time with aerial refueling in flight is only constrained by the engines' oil consumption. The aircraft was initially planned to be able to stay in the air for an entire week in case of an emergency, but during a test flight for endurance, it stayed airborne and utterly functional for 35.4 hours.
To fully refuel an E-4B, two KC-135 tankers must be fully loaded.
9. They were planned to be retired in 2009, but this never happened
Donald Rumsfeld, a former United States Secretary of Defense, predicted that all four E-4Bs would retire by 2009, however, just one did so in 2007. Because "the planes have such unique capabilities," according to Robert Gates, the new Secretary of Defense, the retired plane was then later brought back into service.
10. Apparently, they have a very retro-aesthetic inside
Each "Doomsday Plane" interior has vintage overhead bins that have been modified from the original designs. The inside of the airplane is functional rather than showy, according to journalist David Rennie of The Economist who visited it in 2017.
"It has a distinctly retro, late-cold-war feel, from the secretary’s padded-leather swivel seats, which would not shame a Bond villain, to the military-issue urinals bolted on the walls of the bathrooms ([this] drain straight into the sky, to avoid filling up the septic tanks on long flights)," Rennie described. Others have described a spiral staircase with a chandelier at the top leading to the cockpit.
11. It is a reincarnation of a 1960s operation
"Operation Looking Glass" was the code name for a mission that started in 1961. Its goal was to build a secret airborne command center to send out American missiles when war broke out.
The "Looking Glass" planes were later grounded in 1992, but the new flying war rooms in the "Doomsday Plane" fleet can still do the mission's primary job.
The National Interest claims that "[the aircraft] maintain the communication link between the national command authority... and U.S. nuclear forces, even if ground-based command centers are destroyed".
And that, post-apocalyptic fanatics, is your lot for today.
At least one "Doomsday Plane" is always on alert and ready to respond in the event of a national catastrophic event. Its crew can get them airborne within minutes, ready to take the fight back to the enemy.
Although their name is a little frightening, we hope that it gives our American readers some solace that the U.S. would at least have a chance to survive in the improbable and disastrous event of a mass nuclear attack. We can only hope that they won't ever be necessary.