An E-4B aircraft flew over Offutt base in Nebraska in 2009. Photo: USAF

The US Air Force announced a $13 billion contract to buy a series of new command aircraft to replace the fleet of 4 E-4Bs that are about to expire.

The Pentagon announced on April 27 that Sierra Nevada Corporation has been awarded a contract worth more than $13 billion to develop, manufacture and deliver a fleet of Survivable Air Command Center (SAOC) aircraft with ground support systems by 2036.

“The squadron will replace E-4B Nightwatch aircraft that were built in the 1970s and are nearing the end of their operational life. This is an essential weapon system for national security, helping to ensure communication and command our nuclear forces for decades to come,” a US Air Force spokesman said.

US officials did not disclose the number of SAOC aircraft ordered. This country’s media has mentioned the possibility of buying 8-10 aircraft to replace the current fleet of 4 E-4B aircraft.

Details of the SAOC’s configuration have not been announced, but the US Air Force says it will be based on civilian aircraft reinforced and adapted to meet military requirements. Each is equipped with a highly secure communications system and is capable of withstanding electromagnetic pulses and many other features.

The US Air Force currently operates four specially equipped Boeing 747-200 aircraft named E-4B Nightwatch, also nicknamed “doomsday plane”. When they take off, they will be known as the National Air Operations Center (NAOC). This is always the best choice to help the US president survive a nuclear attack.

Unlike the comforts of Air Force One, the E-4B is a mobile war command center, carrying dozens of military analysts, strategists and communications assistants to assist the US president. It is equipped with many special components, such as wire antennas up to 8 km long, to maintain contact with nuclear submarine forces, even when ground communication stations are destroyed.

During the end of the Cold War, an E-4B Nightwatch aircraft was always in a state of combat readiness at Andrews Air Force Base, ready to take off carrying the US president after just 15 minutes of alarm.

Today, the US Air Force always dispatches E-4B aircraft to fly with or near the US president on foreign trips. A Nightwatch is also always on standby at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, with the engine on 24/7 and ready to take off to pick up the president in an emergency.