Military airplanes intended to keep the U.S. government operating in the event of a nuclear war are aging at a dangerous time.
With Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening to deploy nuclear weapons over Western countries' response to his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, replacement "doomsday" planes are at least five years away as the Air Force seeks funding, Politico reported.
"[The Air Force and Congress] need to get very real about this recapitalization, or they will see some very severe risks adopted that shouldn't be," Douglas Birkey, executive director at Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, told Politico.
There is widespread agreement that it's time to replace the E-4B fleet, but the project needs powerful supporters on Capitol Hill because the cost will appear "incredibly expensive" due to the communications gear required for the aircraft, Birkey said.
"It is going to take strong advocacy to push it across the line," Birkey told Politico.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., whose home state includes Offutt Air Force Base, home of the E-4B fleet, has urged the Air Force to move faster in replacing the planes.
"I was very glad to see the Air Force's budget commit significant resources to developing a replacement" after studying the project for over a decade, Fischer said during a Senate Armed Services hearing in April.
Currently, four Boeing 747-200s are custom-made to satisfy the needs of government officials in case a nuclear war forces them to the sky.
Politico reported the Air Force said it wants to replace the planes within the next 10 years but hasn't announced what it would replace them with.
Under the replacement program, commercial derivative planes will be purchased and modified to survive a nuclear blast.
Col. Brian Golden, National Airborne Operations Center and 595th Command and Control Group chief, said the upcoming fiscal 2023 budget request sets aside $203 million to award contracts next year.
While the project is classified, public documents show the Air Force has released 16 market surveys to industry since December 2020 that suggest the requirements for the program may still be in flux.
The current 747-200s have four engines each, to power the communications systems and also allow the aircraft to fly if one engine is damaged. Only one U.S.-made commercial aircraft, the Boeing 747-800, meets the needs – and that plane also is aging. Boeing received its final order for the 747-800 in January 2021.
Presently, a team of 12 maintenance workers fly with each E-4B Nightwatch aircraft, which typically is used to transport the defense secretary or the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
While information about how the planes are able to withstand a nuclear attack is classified, Politico reported that the computers and wiring onboard are hardened with thermal and nuclear shielding.
The modified 747-200s are designed for missions that last up to 72 hours, which costs the U.S. taxpayer $147,000 per hour — the highest flight hour cost of any military plane aside from Air Force One.
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