Move along, nothing to see here, says the Department of Defense.
Doomsday planes on both coasts? Just a coincidence.
In fact, there’s no need to panic — US Strategic Command’s flight early Friday of at least two Navy E-6B Mercury aircraft, known as the “looking glass” planes for airborne control of the nuclear arsenal, was “coincidental” and not in response to President Donald’s Trump’s positive test for Covid-19, Military.com reported.
“With regard to reports about E-6B aircraft on alert status, STRATCOM has confirmed these E-6B aircraft were part of pre-planned missions. Any timing to the president’s announcement was purely coincidental,” Jonathan Hoffman, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said in a statement.
“There’s been no change to DoD alert levels, [but the military] stands ready to defend our country and interests,” he added. “Our national command and control structure is in no way affected.”
Media sources say the US Navy has 16 Mercuries in total. One often is in the air, and it is not unusual for two to be airborne at the same time.
Unlike the E-4B Nightwatch aircraft, typically known as the “Doomsday plane” because of its nuclear command-and-control mission, the E-6B serves as an airborne communications relay between the Defense Department’s National Command Authority and US nuclear submarine, bomber and missile forces, Military.com reported.
Experts say the “armageddon” planes have the ability to order the killing of everyone on earth if someone attacks the US with nukes in a first strike. It can also talk to US missile subs underwater, even if Washington is gone.
Earlier on Friday, an amateur aircraft spotter observed a pair of E-6 aircraft on both coasts just minutes before the president tweeted that he and First Lady Melania Trump tested positive for the coronavirus.
In recent months, other aircraft spotters have seen an uptick in the airborne command posts’ flights — sometimes in rapid sequence. Experts on Twitter also noted that STRATCOM routinely conducts these types of exercises, Military.com reported.
According to Wired online, E-6Bs, which are based on Boeing 707s, are essentially communication relay stations built to receive military orders from the president and the secretary of defense, and then convey those commands to US ballistic missile submarines.
They’re also equipped to remotely control Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles through a platform called the Airborne Launch Control System, Wired reported.
The idea is for E-6Bs to serve as a redundancy in case ground-based communication systems are disrupted.
And they’re also crucial for establishing line-of-sight communication connections that require proximity. The E-6B mission overall is known as TACAMO, or Take Charge And Move Out, Wired reported.
The planes have some dramatic capabilities.
One of the most significant is their Very Low Frequency communication platform, which is used to reach nuclear ballistic missile submarines down to 60 feet below the ocean’s surface.
These stealth submarines must conceal their positions and often can’t rise to shallower depths or send up buoys to aid communication, Wired reported.
Instead, both communication relay planes and the submarines themselves must be equipped with massive antennas, and even then VLF systems are still extremely low-latency, low-bandwidth, and low-throughput, meaning it takes a long time to send very small amounts of data.
To transmit even the shortest messages to deep-sea submarines, E-6Bs perform special airborne maneuvers. These are essentially steep, tight turns that go on for long periods of time, looping the plane around and around to get the antennas in a vertical position transmitting straight down into the water, Wired reported.
Other military planes are also equipped for VLF communication, but it is especially core to the mission of E-6Bs.
At least one military expert agreed with the DoD’s version of events.
“These aircraft take off all the time. I certainly didn’t draw any conclusions from it,” says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey, California.
“On a day-to-day basis, people don’t think about the fact that the United States is postured to use more than 1,000 nuclear weapons on a few minutes’ notice,” Lewis told Wired.
“They just don’t think about that, because that seems crazy. And so when something happens and people look and they see the normal readiness level they think to themselves, ‘Oh my God, this must be a catastrophe, because why would you have all these forces on alert?!’
“But Trump getting sick didn’t cause this. This is what it’s like all the time, and if you don’t like that then maybe that’s a conversation to have,” Lewis told Wired.
However, some observers said activating the planes also shows the Pentagon wants rivals — like China, Russia and North Korea — to know that its nuclear command system is up and running, even if the commander-in-chief isn’t.
— with files from The Sun, Wired, Military.com and The Express