The US Navy has just received a revamped "Doomsday" plane that has been kitted out with new communications hardware to connect the President's "big red button" to the nation's nuclear forces.
Defense contractor Northrop Grumman recently returned the first E-6B Mercury aircraft to the US Navy after installing five new kits onboard that improve its “aircraft command, control, and communications functions,” according to an announcement on the company’s website.
The renovation was all part of a $111 million contract between Northrop Grumman and the US Navy.
“Northrop Grumman is leveraging cutting-edge technology in modernization, supporting the Navy’s mission to provide survivable, reliable and endurable airborne command, control and communications between the National Command Authority (NCA) and U.S. strategic and nonstrategic forces for persistent mission readiness,” said Scott Pfeiffer, vice president of platform sustainment and mission readiness at Northrop Grumman.
What is the E-6B Mercury "Doomsday" plane?
The E-6B Mercury is essentially a flying command post that helps to relay instructions from the National Command Authority – the ultimate authority that decides whether to “push the red button” – and the nuclear forces of the US.
Given its potential role in nuclear war, the aircraft is often nicknamed the "doomsday" plane.
The idea is that an airborne command post is a much more reliable communications outpost for military commands in the event of a crisis like, let’s say, a nuclear war. Even if the worst does happen, the E-6B Mercury fleet will allow decision-makers to maintain communication with their nuclear weapon delivery systems.
First taking flight in 1989 during the last years of the Cold War, the US has a fleet of at least 16 of these aircraft. The body of the aircraft is actually a militarized version of the commercial Boeing 707 plane. It’s capable of flying non-stop for over 15 hours without refueling, but it can also be refueled in-flight and remain airborne for 72 hours.
One of the US E-6B fleet was spotted flying over the English Channel in March 2022 just a month after Russia invaded Ukraine. This sparked fears that geopolitical tensions in Europe could be at breaking point, but it’s believed that the US always has at least one E-6B airborne at any given time.