USAF seeks industry input for E-4B replacement

The USAF is looking to industry for support in its programme to replace the Boeing E-4B National Airborne Operations Center (NAOC) platform, also known as the ‘Nightwatch’ or the ‘Doomsday plane'.

Officials will gather more information from industry on potential replacements at an industry day to be held at Hanscom Air Force Base (AFB) in February. At the event, the USAF will brief industry about its intentions to acquire the Survivable Airborne Operations Center (SAOC) weapon system as the E-4B replacement.

The service operates four E-4Bs – a militarised Boeing 747-200 which is nearing the end of its viable service life. The NOACs are operated as a survivable airborne strategic command and control post, acting as a communications centre in the event of a national crisis. The E-4Bs are based at Offutt AFB, Nebraska. The aircraft have been in service since 1974, operating in case of nuclear war and other crises. By 1985, all E-4As had been upgraded to E-4B standard.

usaf e-4b [usaf]
An E-4B Nightwatch in-flight. The aircraft are operated by the 1st Airborne Command Control Squadron (ACCS), part of Air Combat Command. USAF/SrA Mary O'Dell

The E-4B is powered by four General Electric CF6-50E2 turbofans, giving it a total unrefuelled endurance of 12 hours. Up to 112 mission and flight crew personnel can be employed on the aircraft.

In the USAF’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 budget request, it was noted that the Department of Defense (DoD) could choose one platform to replace its E-4B and the US Navy’s E-6B Mercury fleets. This is part of the DoD’s plan to acquire a fleet of SAOCs. The USAF requested roughly US$16m for SAOC research and development in FY2020, but it is slated to rise to nearly US$100m a year starting in 2021.

In a December 4 pre-solicitation notice, the USAF said that the SAOC “will be a key component of the National Military Command System for the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff”. It added: “In case of national emergency or destruction of ground command control centers, the SAOC aircraft will provide a highly survivable command, control, and communications platform to direct US forces, execute emergency war orders, and coordinate actions by civil authorities.”

The air arm has outlined that the E-4Bs will be replaced by a “new, cost-effective” platform which will also be a commercial derivative of an aircraft currently in use, modified with communications, networking and C2 equipment. It adds that this will be the first industry day of several in which it will speak with defence contractors. Interested parties have until December 20 to reply to the notice.

E-4B [USAF-SSgt Nicole Leidholm]
The USAF only operates four E-4B Nightwatch aircraft. They are all operated by 1st ACCS from Offutt AFB. The serials of the serving aircraft are 73-1676, 73-1677, 74-0787 and 75-0125. USAF/SSgt Nicole Leidholm