Inside The Military’s $223 Million ‘Doomsday Plane’

Inside The Military’s $223 Million ‘Doomsday Plane’


If there ever were a nuclear war and all US military ground
communication was destroyed, this $223 million plane would become the command
and control center for the US military’s
most senior officials. This is the E-4B “Nightwatch.” It’s basically a flying war room designed to withstand a nuclear blast. Ryan Pickrell: I like to think
of the E-4B as kind of like a flying backup Pentagon. Potentially more secure than the Pentagon. If you’re seeing it at
its maximum capability, which hopefully we never do, yeah, you’re looking at
an apocalyptic scenario, which is why it’s affectionately known as the “doomsday plane.” Narrator: Four E-4Bs make up the National Airborne Operations Center. And the US Air Force is responsible for the operation of all four of them out of Offutt Air Force
Base near Omaha, Nebraska. The retrofitted Boeing
747s were made for war. Originally designed in
1973, the E-4 series planes were thought to be the best way a president during the Cold War might survive a nuclear explosion. And since their inception,
one of the doomsday planes has stood on alert 24/7. Edward Garcia: Because
we’re a 24/7 ops mission, we are not a non-deployable
unit due to our proximity to the president and all
other key assets at one time. But, day to day, it is highly important because we can assume the role
of a primary command center, much like the Pentagon is,
much like strat-com can be. We can assume that role
in the air as well. Narrator: In the immediate
aftermath of a nuclear blast, the president, the secretary of defense, and the joint chiefs of staff would all be safe aboard the E-4B. From there, they could
order nuclear strikes or execute emergency war orders. And while the majority of
the E-4B’s capabilities are classified, we do know a few things. The plane has three
decks and can hold a crew of up to 112 people. With four massive
engines, the E-4B can fly for 12 hours straight without refueling, though with aerial refueling capabilities it could theoretically
fly for several days. It costs nearly $160,000
per hour to fly the E-4B, making it the most expensive airplane the Air Force operates. And it’s built to survive a nuclear blast. To prevent radiation, the
windows have a wired mesh, similar to what you’d see on
the window of a microwave. Equipment and wiring on board are hardened to survive an electromagnetic pulse. There’s also thermal and nuclear shielding and direct-fire countermeasures. Aboard the plane, space is broken down to optimize war coordination. At the front of the plane, executive quarters house the
senior military officials. The upper rest has 18 bunks available for the Air Force crew. They work 24-hour, seven-day
shifts and sleep on board. Beneath that is the
secure conference room, where the joint chiefs, president, and secretary of defense
can give war orders. The briefing room is where officials can update the traveling
press, or battle staff, on strategy and coordination efforts. In the center of the plane, officers from every branch of the military will hammer out a strategy
in the event of a crisis. This base is known as
the battle-staff room. And all outside communication happens at the back of the aircraft from the communication and
technical control room. From here, operators can communicate with virtually anyone in the world, in any situation. Scott McCandless: It’s designed that, in the most austere environments, during or after a nuclear war, it survives and can communicate, from the most cutting-edge
communications technology to old, antiquated
communications technology. We have the ability to
endure and communicate with fielded forces and the
rest of the US government. Narrator: That bubble on top of the E-4B is where all the communication
technology is held. It’s called the “ray
dome,” and an estimated 67 satellite dishes and
antennas are kept here. The E-4B has more
communication capabilities than Air Force One. There’s even a 5-mile-long
“tail” that can be extended behind the plane to
allow for communication with submarines that are underwater. But even with all the
fancy communication tech, you’d be surprised at how old-school the rest of the technology on board is. There’s no digital, and
there’s no touch screens. Everything is analog.
And that’s on purpose. That vintage vibe continues
throughout the airplane. Pickrell: The E-4B doesn’t
really have windows, and it’s actually really
drab on the inside. You’re looking at kind of a beige color that looks like it came straight
out of the 1970s or ’80s, which it did. Narrator: The doomsday
plane’s utilitarian nature is completely intentional to keep
the focus on the job at hand: preparing for the worst. But hopefully we’ll never have to see the doomsday plane at its full capacity. During peacetime, the E-4B’s
main job is to transport the secretary of defense on foreign trips, and one always follows the
president in Air Force One on overseas visits. Garcia: The mission is very
tedious, it is, no kidding, one of the most arduous things
that you could possibly do, but it’s so rewarding in the sense of, every day you know that
you’re doing something or you’re preparing for the worst.

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