US NewsU.S. to forge $13 billion fleet of foreign-sourced 'doomsday planes'

U.S. to forge $13 billion fleet of foreign-sourced 'doomsday planes'

Visualization of the future SAOC airplane
Visualization of the future SAOC airplane
Images source: © Sierra Nevada Corporation
9:53 AM EDT, May 11, 2024

Washington has decided to embark on an ambitious project: the construction of a new fleet of "doomsday planes." These flying command posts are designed to ensure the continuity of government decision-making during a nuclear war. Notably, the planes for this project will be sourced from outside the United States.

The budget allocated for developing these new "doomsday planes" is a staggering $13 billion. Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), a company known not for manufacturing aircraft but for their modification, has been chosen for this task in a contract disclosed in early May. The necessary airframes will be procured from Korean Air, a major airline based in Korea.

Although the specific number of "doomsday planes" to be built remains unclear—with the construction of up to eight aircraft considered likely—it is certain that the existing fleet of four Boeing E-4B Nightwatch planes is no longer sufficient.

The new planes designated the Survivable Airborne Operations Center (SAOC), are set to replace various older models serving similar functions. These include the Boeing E-6 Mercury, a flying command post, and the Boeing C-32, used by top U.S. officials other than the president.

The role of the doomsday plane

The primary role of a "doomsday plane" is to ensure that, even in the event of a nuclear catastrophe that destroys ground-based command centres or cuts off their communication capabilities, the nation's leadership can still command and control military and civilian units. The four Boeing E-4B Nightwatch aircraft, developed in the 1970s from Boeing 747 passenger jets, fulfil this vital function.

The new program dictates that these specialized aircraft will again utilize the Boeing 747 airframe despite the fact that it is an older design whose production ceased over a year ago. Consequently, the only feasible option is to purchase used planes.

The choice to use Boeing 747s, with their four engines, meets a specific requirement for the "doomsday planes." This challenges the team to source these no longer produced models, hence the decision to acquire retired Jumbo Jets from South Korea. So far, Sierra Nevada Corporation plans to purchase at least five Boeing 747-8i from Korean Air, marking the beginning of a new era for America's airborne command and control capabilities.
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