Has there ever been a nation as dedicated to preparing for doomsday as the United States? If that’s a thought that hasn’t crossed your mind, maybe it’s because you didn’t spend part of your life inside Cheyenne Mountain. That’s a tale I’ll get to soon, but first let me mention America’s “doomsday planes.”
Last month, troubling news emerged from US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) that two of those aircraft, also known as E-4B National Airborne Operations Centers, were temporarily disabled by a tornado, leaving only two of them operational. And that, not surprisingly, caught my attention. Maybe you don’t have the world’s end on your mind, not with Donald Trump’s tweets coming fast and furious, but I do. It’s a kind of occupational hazard for me. As a young officer in the US Air Force in the waning years of the Cold War, the end of the world was very much on my mind. So think of this piece as the manifestation of a disturbing and recurring memory.
In any case, the reason for those doomsday planes is simple enough: In a national emergency, nuclear or otherwise, at least one E-4B will always be airborne, presumably above the fray and the fallout, ensuring what the military calls “command and control connectivity.” The E-4B and its crew of up to 112 stand ready, as STRATCOM puts it, to enable America’s leaders to “employ” its “global strike forces” because… well, “peace is our profession.” Yes, STRATCOM still references that old SAC motto from the glory days of former Strategic Air Commander Curtis LeMay who was so memorably satirized by director Stanley Kubrick in his nuclear disaster film, Dr. Strangelove.
The Pentagon reassuringly noted that, despite those two disabled planes, the E-4B’s mission—including perhaps the implementation of a devastating nuclear strike or counter-strike that might kill tens of millions and even cause a “nuclear winter” (a global nightmare leading to a billion deaths or more)—could be accomplished with just two of them operational. Still, relieved as I was to hear that, it did get me thinking about the other 190 or so nations on this planet. Do any of them have even one “doomsday” plane to launch? And if not, how will they coordinate, no less survive, the doomsday the US government is so willing to contemplate and ready to fund?