The United States Air Force is actively looking for a replacement to the E-4B Nightwatch also known as the National Operations Airborne Center, which allows the Pentagon staff to operate from the skies.
In an information notice, the USAF announced that it would review the possible replacement of the aging E-4B fleet, as the Boeing 747 airframe the four aircraft use dates back from the 1970s. The first review for the program, known as the Survivable Airborne Operations Center (SAOC), should take place at Hanscom Air Force Base in February 2020. The Government Program Office calls for potential manufacturers to make themselves known by December 20, 2019. The replacement should be a “new, cost-effective, commercial derivative aircraft”.
A war room in the sky
Developed in the aftermath of Cuba’s missile crisis, the E-4 Nightwatch is a militarized Boeing 747-200, much like the famous two VC-25A used as the United States presidential plane. And much like Air Force One can be used as a flying White House, the Nightwatch is a real Pentagon in the sky.
The E-4B features advanced communication systems, including a satellite communication system and an Airborne Very Low Frequency (AVLF) system that allows talking with immersed submarines. Its avionics are protected against electromagnetic interference such as those produced by a nuclear explosion. In the same vein, its cabin is totally isolated from all external radiation, earning it the nicknames of “Doomsday planes”. Since the upgrade to the B standard, it can be refueled during flight, extending its autonomy to 72 hours.
Four E-4Bs are currently in operation within the 1st Airborne Command Control Squadron, part of the 595th Command and Control Group housed at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, where they stay on high alert, 24/7. They were scrambled at historical times: the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hurricane Katrina, Boston Marathon bombing. During 9/11, the complete fleet was in the air for the first time in history.
While the airframe of the Boeing 747-8, selected in 2015 to be the next Air Force One, would appear as a likely contender for replacement, the production of the aircraft is progressively being slowed down by the manufacturer and could very well be canceled soon. This would make maintenance more difficult and threaten the plane’s availability in the future.