Key Point: Nuclear command and control is one of the most important tasks for the U.S. military.
In a military that operates Raptor stealth fighters, A-10 tank busters, B-52 bombers and Harrier jump jets, the U.S. Navy’s placid-looking E-6 Mercury, based on the 707 airliner, seems particularly inoffensive. But don’t be deceived by appearances. Though the Mercury doesn’t carry any weapons of its own, it may be in a sense the deadliest aircraft operated by the Pentagon, as its job is to command the launch of land-based and sea-based nuclear ballistic missiles.
Of course, the U.S. military has a ground-based strategic Global Operations Center in Nebraska, and land-based transmitters for communicating with the nuclear triad. However, the E-6’s sinister purpose is to maintain the communication link between the national command authority (starting with the president and secretary of defense) and U.S. nuclear forces, even if ground-based command centers are destroyed by an enemy first strike. In other words, you can chop off the head of the U.S. nuclear forces, but the body will keep on coming at you, thanks to these doomsday planes.
The E-6’s basic mission is known as Take Charge and Move Out (TACAMO). Prior to the development of the E-6, the TACAMO mission was undertaken by land-based transmitter and later EC-130G and Q Hercules aircraft, which had Very Low Frequency radios for communication with navy submarines. Interestingly, France also operated its own TACAMO aircraft until 2001, four modified Transall C-160H Astarté transports, which maintained VLF communications with French ballistic-missile submarines.
The first of sixteen E-6s entered service between 1989 and 1992. These were the last built in a very long line of military variants of the venerable Boeing 707 airliner, in particular the 707-320B Advanced, also used in the E-3 Sentry. Bristling with thirty-one communication antennas, the E-6As were originally tasked solely with communicating with submerged Navy submarines. Retrofitted with more fuel-efficient CFM-56 turbojets and benefiting from expanded fuel tanks, the E-6A could remain in the air up to fifteen hours, or seventy-two with inflight refueling.