Northrop, Lockheed and Raytheon to build 'doomsday' plane

The US Navy is looking for a new command and control aircraft to employ in the case of a nuclear war, and Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, and Raytheon Intelligence and Space have banded together to submit a bid.

The “doomsday” plane

The “E-XX” would take the place of the Navy’s current fleet of 16 E-6B Mercury aircraft, which are responsible for the TACAMO (Take Charge and Move Out) mission. This mission enables the President, the Secretary of Defense, and other country leaders to interact with and control forces such as submarines armed with nuclear missiles.

The Navy acknowledged in its fiscal 2024 budget documents that the E-6B fleet is getting old and needs to be upgraded.

On Monday, Jane Bishop, Northrop’s vice president and general manager of global surveillance, announced that the E-XX launch team would include representatives from Crescent Systems Inc. and Long Wave Inc., both of which have expertise in areas such as weapon systems integration and battle management command and control. Bishop addressed a press briefing at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space conference at National Harbor, Maryland.

Program E-XX

Raytheon backs the present TACAMO program and would supply integrated communications equipment for the E-XX. Possible rivals for the Navy’s E-XX program remain unknown at this time.

Henry Cyr, Northrop Grumman’s director for command capture programs and multi-domain control, claimed that the Navy has selected to employ the Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 Super Hercules as the platform for its TACAMO aircraft.

He said that the modified C-130 would be the ideal size for the task at hand and would perform better in the air than the E-6.

Collins Aerospace’s very low-frequency radio system is the one the Navy wants to be installed on the E-XX. Three test aircraft are included in the 213.7 million USD budget request for TACAMO’s upgrading. 

Cyr stated that the Navy aims to award a contract for the E-XX in the first quarter of fiscal 2025 and will likely purchase an additional nine aircraft.

What will this plane be like?

Northrop anticipates the Navy’s need to publicize the plane within the next few months. With the Navy’s emphasis on speed, the E-XX likely won’t feature any novel technologies outside of upgraded communication and computing infrastructure. According to Cyr, the objective is rapidly applying existing technologies to a new airframe.

“This is not a demonstration of a new technology,” he said. “It’s about using an existing capacity that can be put into practice in the short term.”

TACAMO is a “cannot fail” mission, too important to jeopardize by experimenting with something untested, Cyr said.

“In the business of nuclear command and control communications, it’s more important to get it right 100% of the time than to take a little risk in developing a new technology,” he said.