The day is coming when Offutt Air Force Base’s giant “Doomsday” planes will fly off into the sunset.
The Air Force has started a program to replace the four E-4B Nightwatch jets — also known as the National Airborne Operations Center — within 10 years. The Doomsday moniker is because their primary mission is to take off and maintain control of nuclear weapons in the event of nuclear war. They also frequently are used as a transport plane for the secretary of defense.
In December, the Air Force posted a notice about the proposed replacement aircraft, which will be called the Survivable Airborne Operations Center, or SAOC. An “industry day” informational session for potential contractors was held in February.
“In case of national emergency or destruction of ground command control centers, the SAOC will provide a highly survivable command, control and communications (C3) platform to direct U.S. forces, execute emergency war orders, and coordinate actions by civil authorities,” said the Air Force’s notice.
Congress budgeted $20 million in 2019 and 2020 to begin looking for a replacement for the E-4B and two other types of military aircraft, the E-6B Mercury and the C-32A. The Trump administration is seeking $76.4 million in its 2021 budget, and is looking to spend more than half a billion dollars over the next five years developing the new plane.
The new planes would start joining the fleet in the late 2020s.
The big, white E-4s have been a familiar sight in Nebraska skies since they were introduced at Offutt in the mid-1970s. They are a military version of the civilian Boeing 747-200, which first flew in 1968. Production ended in 1991, and the last passenger airline retired the model in 2017 (though later versions are still in use).
Sign up for World-Herald news alerts
Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.
“They’re the oldest 747s in the fleet,” said Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., who oversaw their operation when he commanded the Offutt-based 55th Wing in 2011-12. “Logistically, it’s a real challenge to find spare parts and maintain them.”
They’re also the Air Force’s most expensive planes to operate. The magazine Business Insider calculated in 2016 that the E-4Bs cost just less than $160,000 an hour to fly. That’s almost $30,000 an hour more than the next-highest, the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, which is equipped to carry StratCom’s nuclear gravity bombs into battle.
In 2017, two E-4Bs were damaged when a tornado struck the Offutt flight line. Both were stored in a hangar at the time, but with their tails exposed. The tails, which stand six stories high, acted like giant sails and moved the planes inside the building. The planes sustained a combined $8.3 million worth of damage and were out of service, one for four weeks and the other for eight.
The Navy E-6Bs, although based in Oklahoma City, are also frequently on call at Offutt. Their primary job is to communicate with Trident ballistic-missile submarines through VLF (very low frequency) communications systems, which involve flying in tight circles above the ocean while trailing a 5-mile-long antenna.
The 22 E-6Bs are military versions of the civilian Boeing 707-320. They were the very last of that type built, in the late 1980s.
The six C-32As are Boeing 757-200 narrow-body jetliners configured for use as executive transports for the vice president, first lady and members of the Cabinet. They were built in the late 1990s and are based at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland.
When they are carrying the vice president, they are called “Air Force Two.”
Despite their age, the E-4Bs are newer and have a better service record than the C-135-variant reconnaissance jets flown by the Offutt-based 55th Wing on critical missions around the world.
Those planes were built in the early 1960s. A 2018 World-Herald investigation showed the C-135-variants had break rates far higher than the E-4Bs.
Only a handful of those aircraft are scheduled to be replaced before the 2040s.