US Navy selects Northrop Grumman to modernise E-6B fleet

Northrop Grumman announced on March 3 that it was recently awarded the Integrated Modification and Maintenance Contract for the US Navy’s fleet of Boeing E-6B Mercury airborne command and control aircraft, which the firm will be responsible for sustaining and modernising over the coming years.

Over the next five years, the company will modify the Navy’s 15-strong E-6B fleet to improve its command, control and communications (C3) functions, which directly connect with the national command authority that is responsible for the US’ Nuclear Triad. Northrop Grumman states that work in relation to this contract will be performed at the firm’s Aircraft Maintenance and Fabrication Center in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

E-6B Mercury [US Navy/Erik Hildebrandt]
A Boeing E-6B Mercury from the US Navy's Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 20 (VX-20) 'Force' performs a flutter test during a sortie over Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, on August 3, 2016. US Navy/Erik Hildebrandt

The company adds that it will “establish a consolidated production line for core modifications required under the $111m contract,” adding that it may also absorb “additional, smaller modifications and select depot maintenance tasks as required.”

Commenting on the contract, Mary Petryszyn – corporate vice president and president of Defense Systems at Northrop Grumman – said: “We are laser focused on providing the most relevant capabilities while improving mission readiness. As leaders in aircraft sustainment and modernisation, the US Navy’s E-6B Mercury fleet is another example of our strong partnership with the Navy in achieving those goals.”

Northrop Grumman’s sustainment and modernisation support package includes contractor logistics support and fleet stewardship; modifications and upgrades; mission planning; and weapon systems development and pilot training. The firm also supports software design engineering and integration solutions for autonomous, tactical, fixed-wing and special mission aircraft systems, including the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fifth-generation multi-role stealth fighter and Fairchild-Republic A-10C Thunderbolt II close air support/attack aircraft. This latest contract further expands Northrop Grumman’s portfolio in providing aircraft maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade services.

E-6B Mercury [USAF/Greg L Davis]
This E-6B Mercury pulls away from a KC-135R Stratotanker after receiving fuel over Colorado during a sortie on August 23, 2019. USAF/Greg L Davis

Based on the now-matured Boeing 707-320 airframe, the initial E-6A Hermes completed its maiden flight on February 19, 1987, before being delivered to the US Navy for testing on July 22, 1988. The platform was officially renamed the Mercury in 1991 and 16 examples were delivered to the service in total. These aircraft were subsequently upgraded to E-6B standard from 1997 to 2006.

Today, the E-6B remains to be a critical part of the US Navy’s Take Charge and Move Out (TACAMO) strategic communications mission. It operates across a wide frequency spectrum, where it transmits and receives secure and non-secure voice and data information that helps provide survivable, endurable and reliable airborne C3 in support of US Strategic Command and the offices of the President and Secretary of Defense.

In 2021, the US Navy purchased a second-hand Boeing E-3D Sentry AEW1 from the Royal Air Force for use as a dedicated E-6B training platform. Following conversion, this aircraft will be used to further extend the operational life of the Mercury fleet by absorbing the training duties that are currently carried out by E-6B mission aircraft.