In the event of a full-blown conflict, including with nuclear missile attacks, developed countries have specialized air command posts for senior political and military leadership. Since the beginning of the seventies, the Boeing E-4A / B has been in service with the US Air Force since the early seventies. Despite their considerable age, they still remain an important element of national security.
Responding to threats
At the peak of the Cold War in the United States, several types of airborne command posts (CPS) with different tasks were developed and built. In 1965, the VKP EC-135J NEACP (National Emergency Airborne Command Post), intended for the country's top leadership, entered service, but already in the early seventies they decided to replace it with a newer and more advanced machine.
In February 1973, the Boeing company and a number of manufacturers of electronic equipment received an order from the Pentagon to create an aircraft with the code “481B NEACP”, later designated as E-4A. It was proposed to do it on the basis of the wide-body airliner Boeing 747-200. On board the CPSU was to accommodate equipment from the older EC-135J. The resulting command post retained the required capabilities, but was superior to its predecessor in flight data.
The first order included the construction of two VKP E-4A, then new orders appeared. By the fall of 1973, it was planned to put into operation six cars, another one was intended for testing. However, in the end, only four VKP were ordered, and the latter was to be built according to the updated E-4B project. It could be distinguished from “A” aircraft by the characteristic casing of the radio antennas on the top of the fuselage.
The first of the future E-4A took off in July 1973. Already in 1974 he was put on duty. The construction of the following machines was delayed and completed only in 1978. A year later, they passed the fourth All-Union Communist Party, carried out under the new project E-4B.
Curiously, the E-4A / B project turned out to be the most expensive in stories US Air Force. The average cost of one car reached $ 250 million - more than 1,3 billion at current prices. This record was broken only at the end of the next decade with the advent of the B-2A bomber.
In the early eighties, the equipment was sent for repair and modernization. From these procedures, all planes returned in a “B” configuration. In 1994, the aircraft received the new designation NAOC (National Airborne Operations Center). In addition, they received the unofficial nickname Nightwatch ("Night Watch" - in honor of the famous painting by Rembrandt).
The E-4B is built on the basis of the serial Boeing 747-200 and retains its main components, although the glider had to be redone during the re-equipment. Also, a power plant and a number of general aircraft systems were replaced. As a result, the E-4B is close to the base vehicle in its flight performance. An important difference in this context is the availability of in-flight refueling equipment. Thanks to her, the E-4B can remain in the air for up to 7 days, and this period is limited mainly by the reserves of resources for the crew.
E-4B retained the three-deck fuselage layout. The top is given to flight crews; on it are a cabin and cabins for relaxation. On the site of the main passenger compartment “747-200” there is a kitchen compartment, a salon for top officials of the state with all the necessary equipment, a conference room and a meeting room, a communications compartment and operator rooms. In the tail there are rooms for resting duty shifts. The lower deck is dedicated to accommodate a variety of equipment and individual jobs.
According to well-known data, E-4B aircraft carry a full range of electronic equipment for controlling the armed forces and are adapted to work in the most difficult conditions. In particular, avionics is still built on "old" components and devices, since modern "glass cabins" are less resistant to the damaging factors of a nuclear explosion and other threats. Other measures were taken to increase survivability and ensure the safety of the crew and passengers.
Special equipment provides communication and reception of data from all sources in the armed forces of the United States and NATO, as well as the processing of incoming information with subsequent issuance to the command. Then, the development and transmission of commands to units and units is carried out. Particular attention is paid to communications and the management of strategic nuclear forces. In particular, for interaction with submarines, a produced antenna with a length of 8 km is provided. To solve the problems of communication and data processing on board the Night Watch, there are 29 automated workstations used by staff officers.
Depending on the tasks, the E-4B can take on board from 60 to 100 people - the flight crew, technical staff, headquarters and high command. Comfortable conditions are provided for the crew and passengers. Perhaps a long stay in the air with the provision of rest and nutrition.
Airplanes on duty
The first VKP E-4A went on duty in 1974, and soon new ones joined it. By the beginning of the eighties, the work of the command could provide three cars of the version "A" and one "B". Soon, such a disunification was corrected by modernizing older boards.
NEACP / NAOC aircraft were on duty at various airbases. One of them was constantly present at the Andrews airfield (Camp Springs, PCs. Maryland), in the immediate vicinity of the main US military and civilian centers - 10 km from Washington. According to the state, one of the CPSU was to be in full readiness awaiting an order to take off. Immediately after the arrival of dignitaries, it was possible to fly into the air. This order was maintained until 1994.
Also, E-4B along with other special boards participate in foreign trips of the country's leadership. Thanks to this, the President or the Minister of Defense can at any time take a place at the CPSU and make strategic decisions. In addition, the use of NAOC as a vehicle for the leadership of the Ministry of Defense simplifies the management of the armed forces.
Since 1994, E-4B aircraft can be used as temporary command posts in civilian areas. An airplane can arrive in a natural disaster or other disaster zone and perform control functions until a full-fledged ground control tower is deployed. However, such opportunities were used only a few times.
Not yet the end
Aircraft Boeing E-4B are quite old, and even constant repairs do not allow to continue to operate forever. In early 2006, the US Department of Defense announced its intention to decommission obsolete aircraft and replace them with new ones by 2009. However, in February 2007 plans were reduced, and now only one was to be disposed of.
Finally, in May 2007, the new Secretary of Defense ordered the E-4B to remain in service. The reasons for this decision were simple and understandable: none of the new CPSUs can perform all the same functions as the Night Watch. In the future, the topic of cancellation of the E-4B was not raised. The operation of such equipment continues to this day and will not stop in the near future.
According to well-known data, the technical condition and regular maintenance allow you to continue using the E-4B without any restrictions. After 2020-22 some minor restrictions are possible. The glider resource will be enough for active operation for another 12-15 years.
In 2015, work began on the modernization of aircraft. According to open data, the complex of communication facilities was supplemented with modern systems. Due to this, new communication capabilities are provided, resistance to various influences, etc. is increased.
Key element of defense
E-4A / B air command posts were created at the height of the Cold War, taking into account the main threats of the time. Given the risk of exchanging nuclear missiles, the armed forces of the opposing states needed a reliable and stable system of command and control of the armies, including SNF. The answer to this was the emergence of various specialized complexes, systems and equipment models - one of them was the American VKP E-4A / B. In the future, the situation in the world changed, but the air command posts remained in service.
Nearly half a century has passed since the start of duty of NEACP / NAOC aircraft, but they still retain their place in the US Air Force due to their unique capabilities and the virtual absence of alternatives. The E-4B continues to be an essential element of strategic management systems in the US Armed Forces, and their replacement is not yet in sight.