Aboard America's Doomsday command and control plane

If the U.S. fights a nuclear war, top military brass could run it from aboard the National Airborne Operations Center. CNET Road Trip 2013 went on board one of the militarized 747s.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read

American's four National Airborne Operations Center planes, each a militarized Boeing 747-200 called an E-4B, offers senior military leaders the most complete and sophisticated airborne communications platform in the world. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- I've always loved 747s and just about everything about them. But the one I'm on right now, known as the Doomsday plane, has a very different -- and very somber -- purpose than most of Boeing's iconic jumbo jets.

Formally known as the National Airborne Operations Center (NAOC), this is an E-4B, the plane that America's military leaders would use as an airborne command and control center in the case of a nuclear war or other very serious conflict.

A rare peek inside America's Doomsday plane (pictures)

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Actually, there are four of the planes, each identical to the others, and all based out of this Air Force Base just south of Omaha that is also home to United States Strategic Command. Though nominally 747-200s -- the same as Air Force One -- the E-4Bs have been outfitted with what is likely the most complete and sophisticated spectrum of communications equipment ever flown.

And they have to be, since America's military leadership would rely on the plane to command the country's forces if Doomsday ever happens. As Col. Brien Baude, one of the NAOC team chiefs, told me when I asked him about the communications capabilities, "If there's someone out there with a radio, we can talk to them."

I've come to Offutt as part of Road Trip 2013, and having been to many different military installations in the past, including going deep inside Cheyenne Mountain, I was expecting to take the Doomsday plane in stride. But little can prepare you for being aboard an aircraft that was designed to enable top military brass to conduct a nuclear war from the skies.

Always on alert
Despite its primary purpose, the world has changed enough that no one is particularly worried that a nuclear war could break out at any time. Still, there is never a moment when one of the E-4Bs isn't on ready alert. That means the plane's crew is stationed at a barracks near the tarmac and can have the plane ready to take off with a moment's notice. Baude wouldn't say exactly how long it would take to get airborne but insisted that the crews are trained to be fast enough to "meet our needs and ensure survivability."

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One of the key elements of that is that an essential part of the crew is a set of maintenance staff who are certified to start the plane's engines, meaning that when the pilots arrive, they can begin taxiing immediately. They may be among the only maintenance staff in the world with such training.

With that in mind, the four crews rotate being on a one-week alert status. On the day that I was at Offutt, three of the planes were there, with one being on alert. Baude said that there is almost always one plane that is being worked on, meaning it would be extremely rare to see all four together.

Baude defined the NAOC planes' mission this way: "In time of national emergency or disaster, [the plane] supports the president and the Secretary of Defense. It's a survival airborne platform that they can command and control from."

Indeed, Baude said that the NAOC planes are always in "action" because the simple fact of their existence is a military deterrent, and "deterrence is viewed as a job. That is its mission -- to be on alert, poised, and ready."

Still, the planes have never been needed to run a war. The most serious situation any one of them has ever been called into was on September 11, 2001, when the plane "launched and did its job," Baude said.

Three of the four Doomsday planes, seen together on the tarmac at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Though Air Force One is known to be a very special airplane, Baude said that NAOC planes "have a few more bumps on the outside of the fuselage." That, of course, means more communications antennae, and a more complete capability of talking to anyone the military brass might need to talk to. And given how serious the situation would be if the plane was ever needed in an actual war footing, and the fact that it might not be able to land, it can be refueled in mid-air.

Each of the NAOC planes is outfitted with a broad array of communications gear. That includes a very-low frequency antenna that can be trailed up to five miles behind the plane and a giant hump on top of the fuselage that provides super-high frequency and Milstar communications. The Air Force defines Milstar as a "joint service satellite communications system that provides secure, jam resistant, worldwide communications to meet essential wartime requirements for high priority military users. The multi-satellite constellation links command authorities with a wide variety of resources, including ships, submarines, aircraft and ground stations."

In essence, Baude said, the communications platform gives military leaders "the assurance that they'll be able to talk to the forces."

In addition, the plane offers leaders just about every level of communications, from wide-open to completely secure. They have Internet functionality and the ability to talk to anyone, anywhere, by radio or telephone. "If there's someone out there with a radio, we can talk to them," Baude said. Or, "if it has a phone number, [we] will get through."

Battle staff
The Doomsday plane has three floors. The main -- middle -- area is for "battle staff," and at the center is a battle staff room, where officers from each of America's military services would work in a crisis. These officers have the ability to function on behalf of senior level leaders, Baude explained, and together have knowledge of America's big-picture strategic level forces. As well, they understand the nation's infrastructure, including our power grids, and who they would need to talk to at the state and local levels in case of an emergency. They also have a deep understanding of national intelligence issues, and can brief senior leaders about almost any situation.

Baude is one of the NAOC team chiefs, a role filled by an Army or Air Force colonel or a Navy captain. A team chief is in charge of the plane, and its mission, when it's on alert.

And at all times, there's a NAOC plane on alert, most likely at Offutt Air Force Base, in case it's needed. If it is, Baude and his crew -- or one of the other three that can get a Doomsday plane in the air in must minutes -- are ready to jump into action. Given the plane's nickname, we can all hope that most serious of missions never happens.