The US Air Force (USAF) has selected the Sierra Nevada Corporation, a Colorado-based aerospace supplier, to produce a new E-4B Survivable Airborne Operations Center (SAOC) plane to replace the service’s four existing aircraft under a new $13bn deal awarded on 26 April 2024.

This so-called ‘Doomsday’ plane performs the role of a highly survivable, mobile nuclear mobile nuclear command and control (C2) outpost that directs US forces, execute emergency war orders, and co-ordinate actions by civil authorities in the event of national emergency or the destruction of ground C2 infrastructure.

Designated ‘Nightwatch’, the E-4B is a militarised version of a long-range, four-engine and high-altitude Boeing 747-200 aeroplane. It also provides outside of continental US travel support for the Secretary of Defense and his staff.

This contract was a competitive acquisition with two offers received. Sierra is due to deliver the new fleet by July 2036. Fiscal 2024 research, development, test, and evaluation funds in the amount of $59m were obligated at the time of award.

The programme will replace the Air Force’s current fleet of four ageing E-4B planes.

Nightwatch programme

Air Force Global Strike Command is the single-resource manager for the E-4B, and provides aircrew, maintenance, security and communications support.

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E-4B operations are directed by Joint Communications Support and executed through US Strategic Command, which also provides personnel for the National SAOC battle staff.

The E-4B is protected against the effects of electromagnetic pulse and has an electrical system designed to support advanced electronics and a wide variety of communications equipment.

An advanced satellite communications system provides global communication for senior leaders through the airborne operations centre.

Other improvements include nuclear and thermal effects shielding, acoustic control, an improved technical control facility and an upgraded air-conditioning system for cooling electrical components.

The E-4B evolved from the E-4A, which had been in service since late 1974. The first B model was delivered to the Air Force in January 1980, and by 1985 all aircraft were converted to B models. All E-4B aircraft are assigned to the 595th Command and Control Group at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. The 595th C2G aligned under Eighth Air Force on 1 October 2016.