Over the last week, the various panels comprising the House Armed Services Committee have generated hundreds of pages of proposed legislative language and analysis concerning defense spending for the fiscal year beginning October 1.  Their work is full of interesting insights into the challenges the joint force faces — insights that often don’t get much mention from the Pentagon itself.  One such nugget can be found on page 112 of the report issued by the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, wherein members complain about the defense department’s failure to spell out its plans for modernizing the nation’s E-4B airborne command posts.

Chances are you’ve never heard of the E-4Bs — there are four of them – but they long ago earned the nickname of “doomsday planes,” because if there ever were a nuclear exchange that’s probably the place from which U.S. command authorities would wage the war.  If the planes aren’t up to the task, it could prove to be the last war America ever wages.  Although popular culture is immersed in fears of rampant viruses, alien warriors and wandering zombies, nuclear weapons are the one tool in human hands right now that really could wipe out American civilization.  Not just in the distant future, but before sundown today.  So preventing such a conflict from happening will likely remain the nation’s top military priority for the foreseeable future.

Problem is, we’ve never hit upon a workable scheme for defeating large-scale nuclear attacks.  The Pentagon’s missile-defense agency has fielded radars and interceptor missiles on the West Coast capable of defeating a few warheads launched by North Korea, but if Vladimir Putin decided he wanted to destroy America, we couldn’t stop him.  A small fraction of the Russian nuclear arsenal would be sufficient to irreparably damage America’s economy and social fabric.  The government spent hundreds of billions of dollars during the Cold War trying to develop nuclear defenses that could counter such an attack, but pretty much gave up after the Reagan era.

So what we do instead is try to deter a nuclear attack by threatening horrible retaliation.  The thinking is that if U.S. nuclear forces can survive a surprise attack in sufficient numbers to carry out devastating retaliation, then no sane enemy will attack in the first place.  It isn’t a very comforting strategy — some enemies aren’t sane, others are accident prone — but deterrence seems to be the best we can do.  And that’s where the doomsday planes come in.  A credible deterrent requires more than bombers and missiles capable of riding out an attack.  It requires survivable command centers and communications links to initiate, manage and terminate retaliation as circumstances dictate.

Sustaining a resilient command system helps convince potential aggressors that nothing can be gained from launching a surprise attack, and – if deterrence fails — provides some hope that a nuclear exchange can be turned off before it escalates to Armageddon.  However, military planners figured out early in the Cold War that underground bunkers probably could not survive a nuclear strike, and that fixed communications links would be hard to maintain in a nuclear environment.  So they elected to field a fleet of flying command posts and communications nodes that could survive during a nuclear exchange.

An E-4B National Airborne Operations Center in flight, displaying the distinctive satellite uplink structure on its forward fuselage. (Retrieved from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/33/E-4B_Nightwatch.jpg)

For the most part, these planes were based on military versions of the old Boeing 707, a durable four-engine jetliner that still is used by the Navy today as a communications node for scattered nuclear forces.  But in the 1970s the Air Force began fielding a more capable airborne command post based on the Boeing 747 jumbojet that could provide “national command authorities” — meaning the president, cabinet members and top military officers – with a secure and survivable nerve center in wartime.  That was the origin of the E-4B, and although it is also equipped for managing conventional conflicts and domestic disasters, its design specifications are dictated mainly by the demands of a nuclear conflict.

(Disclosure: Boeing contributes to my think tank.)

For instance, the four planes in the E-4B fleet are hardened to withstand nuclear effects such as electromagnetic pulse that would disable other aircraft (published sources say the cockpit retains older analog displays because they are more resistant to electric surges generated by nuclear detonations).  They are equipped with aerial refueling booms enabling them to stay airborne continuously for over 150 hours.  Their communications equipment includes secure uplinks to a global satellite grid, and a wire antenna that can be unspooled up to five miles long behind the plane.  The three decks on each E-4B have work stations for dozens of specialists trained in every facet of battle command and control.

The operational characteristics of the E-4B also are shaped largely by the nuclear mission.  The planes are stationed near U.S. Strategic Command headquarters in Nebraska — deep in the nation’s interior – providing maximum warning time to get airborne in the event of a nuclear attack. At least one plane is kept on alert around the clock at all times.  Numerous other sites have been designated to which they could fly in wartime, either to rendezvous with top government leaders, or to minimize their vulnerability to attack.  When the President travels overseas on Air Force One an E-4B typically shadows his movements, and the Secretary of Defense often travels on one of the E-4Bs.

What troubles the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, though, is that like other parts of the nation’s nuclear force posture, the E-4Bs are getting old.  Plans to replace them have not fared well, partly because the government keeps changing its ideas about what is needed in a next-generation airborne command post.  The subcommittee’s commentary complained that a requested report on E-4B modernization delivered by the Air Force earlier this year “described several abortive attempts to initiate a replacement program for the aging E-4B fleet, as well as the increasingly difficult and costly efforts to sustain and recapitalize E-4B systems” — but didn’t offer a long-term solution.

The subcommittee attributed this lack of a plan to government uncertainty about “future concepts of operations” for the nuclear force, and then directed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to deliver dual reports on plans for nuclear command and control and the E-4B fleet by November 15.  Clearly, committee members are looking for more than a litany of past mistakes and current procedures.  What they want is a roadmap for assuring the integrity of the nation’s foremost nuclear command-and-control asset, regardless of how threat conditions or military plans might change over the next several decades.

The reason the subcommittee requested the studies from the Joint Chiefs chairman presumably is that his organization controls E-4B missions and supplies on-board specialists through U.S. Strategic Command, even though the Air Force provides the air crew, maintenance and communications support.  This complex arrangement may have something to do with why the E-4B has not gotten more attention as it aged.  Assets that are shared between military organizations often are less valued than those owned by one outfit.  In the case of the doomsday planes, though, the viability of the nation’s entire nuclear deterrent could come down to the capability, availability and survivability of a handful of aircraft.  So the subcommittee was right to sound impatient.