Air Force officials will gather more information on a future aircraft fleet to replace the E-4B National Airborne Operations Center, also known as the “Nightwatch” or “Doomsday” plane, at an industry day in February 2020.
The service’s fiscal 2020 budget request noted that the Defense Department could choose one airframe to consolidate the capabilities offered by the Air Force’s E-4B and the Navy’s E-6B Mercury into an “optimized fleet” dubbed the “Survivable Airborne Operations Center,” or SAOC. Officials previously considered replacing the VC-25, used as Air Force One, and C-32A executive transport planes as part of the effort.
E-4s have been in service since the 1970s as flying emergency command centers in case of nuclear war or other crises.
“SAOC … will be a key component of the National Military Command System for the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” the Air Force said in a Dec. 4 notice. “In case of national emergency or destruction of ground command control centers, the SAOC aircraft will provide a highly survivable command, control, and communications platform to direct US forces, execute emergency war orders, and coordinate actions by civil authorities.”
The four jets also ensure the Defense Secretary stays connected to forces during international travel. E-4s are based at Offutt AFB, Neb., home to US Strategic Command.
They will be replaced by a “new, cost-effective, commercial derivative aircraft” with modern communications, networking, and C2 equipment, according to the notice. Program officials want to get a head start on advanced manufacturing work to ensure that phase of the acquisition process goes smoothly.
February’s industry day at Hanscom AFB, Mass., is among several events planned to reach out to defense contractors, the notice said. The military and industry must design a modern network of nuclear command, control, and communications assets, to include the E-4B, that can withstand 21st-century threats to military decision-making like cyber attacks. The Joint Staff has been mulling its options for a new airborne NC3 fleet since 2015.
The Air Force requested about $16 million for SAOC research and development in 2020, but funding is slated to climb upward to $100 million a year starting in 2021. The total cost of a new fleet is still in the works.