No matter where you are in America, chances are you might catch a glimpse of a plane in the sky. More than 45,000 daily flights are monitored by the Federal Aviation Administration, and more than 10,000,000 passenger flights take off every year. Those flights all have one thing in common: they intend to land. That’s not the case with one particular aircraft designation. Nicknamed “The Doomsday Plane,” one of these crafts has been in the air for 29 years, ready to take control of America’s nuclear forces if the unimaginable happened and all command and control centers on the ground had been rendered inoperable. Though no longer constantly circling, the U.S. has Doomsday Planes ready to take off at a moment’s notice. Welcome to Operation Looking Glass.
Initiated 60 years ago on February 3, 1961, Looking Glass came at one of the highest moments of tension in the history of the country. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were deep in the Cold War. The Bay of Pigs Invasion was just a few months away, with the Cuban Missile Crisis following the next year. The idea of a nuclear confrontation between East and West seemed, if not imminent, at least entirely plausible. The U.S. military and intelligence communities studied options that would keep a command structure intact if the unthinkable happened and control on the ground was lost.
Dubbed “Looking Glass” because they “mirrored” the command and control functionality on the ground, the original Doomsday Planes were five modified KC-135A Boeing Stratotankers. One was kept in the air at all times from the original launch date. Around three dozen crew were on the plane, including battle support staff and operators. The general officer of the craft was the AEAO (Airborne Emergency Action Officer); in the event of a strike, if the communication and command structure was lost on the ground, the AEAO originally had the legal authority to instigate nuclear counter strikes and other commands under what was called “National Command Authority.” The plane has always maintained the capability to communicate with the Navy’s nuclear-capable submarine fleet. The U.S. tightened the “National Command Authority” term in 2002, explicitly stating that only the president or secretary of defense has that authority, while legally only the president can unilaterally order a nuclear strike.
The mission profile of Looking Glass has been modified over time, with different, newer aircraft substituting in for older models. The continuous flight system was discontinued on July 24, 1990. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and with the dissolution of the Soviet Union on the horizon, the mission adapted to the new reality. The planes would maintain an alert status, but while still airborne for a portion of the time, they would also spend part of the time on the ground, ready to launch.
Today’s Looking Glass aircraft come from the Navy’s E-6B fleet. Those are Boeing E-6 Mercurys, which are similar to the Boeing 707 passenger airliner; they went into service in 1998. While Looking Glass is still the name of the program, the plane in the air itself is referred to as the Airborne Command Post (ABNCP). Some information about the ABNCP is public knowledge, and elements like what type of officers make up the crew can be found on the U.S. Strategic Command site. Information like flight patterns, how long a plane is in the air and when, and so on, would not be generally acceissble for security reasons.
While the threat profile of what the United States deals with on a daily basis has changed a lot in the last 60 years, the mere existence of nuclear weapons around the world makes them a viable threat. Operation Looking Glass has changed with the times, but it remains a vital component of national defense.
Featured image: Members of U.S. Strategic Command with a U.S. Navy E-6B Mercury at Minot Air Force Base, ND, September 19, 2016 (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class J.T. Armstrong; public domain)
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