Nightwatch: The USA’s E-4B NAOC “Doomsday” Fleet


E-4B mission
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USA replacing older LF/VLF communication systems on board.

April 20/22: Aircrew Training MilSup LLC won a $10.5 million contract modification for the RC/OC/WC-135 and E-4B Aircrew Training and Courseware Development Contract. This modification exercises Option Year One. Work will take place in Nebraska. Expected completion date is in April 30, 2023.

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E-4B NAOC (click to view full) In December 2005, the U.S. Air Force awarded Boeing a contract as Product Support Integrator (PSI) for the USAF’s E-4 National Airborne Operations Center fleet. These 4 modified 747-200s were introduced in 1974, and serve as complete flying command posts for national and military authorities. As one might imagine, […]

E-4B picture

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In December 2005, the U.S. Air Force awarded Boeing a contract as Product Support Integrator (PSI) for the USAF’s E-4 National Airborne Operations Center fleet. These 4 modified 747-200s were introduced in 1974, and serve as complete flying command posts for national and military authorities. As one might imagine, they are hardened to resist the side-effects of nuclear attack, such as electro-magnetic pulse effects.

The 2005 contract was a 5-year, indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract vehicle, with one 5-year option and a $2 billion cost cap. That’s a lot of money for a small fleet, but the E-4’s plays a military and civil role that gives the program enough leverage to justify it. A long history of support from Boeing includes a number of modernizations, and those continue for various systems within the fleet. DID looks at the aircraft, the program, and ongoing awards.

The E-4B and Its Update Team

Boeing USAF contracts

The USAF operates 4 of these 747-200 aircraft variants, assigned to the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base, NE. They’re big planes, for a set of big missions.

The E-4B is designed for full national command, including the President of the United States and/or successors, Secretary of Defense, and/or Joint Chiefs of Staff. These command functions extend to nuclear forces if necessary.

It also has a civil role in the event of natural disasters. As of 1994, the E-4 fleet will also ferry Federal Emergency Management Agency crews to natural disaster sites and serving as a temporary command post on the ground until facilities can be built on site. E-4B support can cut timelines from days to hours.


E-4B overview
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So, how does this relate to other command planes in the USAF’s inventory?

The VC-25 Air Force One is the President’s transport plane, with a much nicer interior and secondary command functions. An E-4B is kept on full alert at all times, and 1 remains relatively close to Air Force One so that the American President can get into an E-4B quickly from anywhere in the world.

The smaller 707-based E-6B Mercury/TACAMO has a simpler primary mission: it mirrors the command systems of the military’s STRATCOM authority for nuclear missiles, including VLF communications with American nuclear ballistic missile submarines. Its “Looking Glass” theater command post role offers helpful redundancy, but it would never be the primary option if a choice is available.


Inside tour
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The E-4A debuted in late 1974, and the first E-4B conversion was delivered in 1980. By 1985, all E-4s were E-4Bs. As one might imagine, the E-4B has always had electromagnetic pulse protection, an electrical system designed to support advanced electronics, and communications equipment that’s as new as the requirements for hardened systems can offer. A spool within the aircraft can extend a long antenna up to 5 miles behind the plane, for VLF transmissions.

E-4B improvements include newer nuclear and thermal effects shielding, acoustic control, an improved technical control facility, and an upgraded air-conditioning system for cooling all those electrical components. An advanced satellite communications system improves worldwide communications.

The main deck is divided into 6 functional areas: a command work area, conference room, briefing room, an operations team work area, and communications and rest areas. An E-4B crew may include up to 112 people, including a joint-service operations team, an ACC flight crew, on-board maintenance and security personnel, a communications team and “selected augmentees.”

The goal of the 2005 PSI contract is to provide increased readiness for the fleet, and integrate multiple contracts (Contractor Logistics Support, Engineering Support Services, Message Processing System, and Block I upgrades) into a single best-value contract. USAF Air Combat Command (ACC) is the single-resource manager for the E-4B, and provides aircrew, maintenance, security and communications support. The Joint Chiefs of Staff actually control E-4B operations, and provide personnel for the airborne operations center.

Boeing remains the lead system integrator for the E-4 fleet, and leads a team that also includes L3 Communications, Rockwell Collins, and Greenpoint Technology Inc.

Contracts & Key Events

FY 2012 – Today



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April 20/22: Aircrew Training MilSup LLC won a $10.5 million contract modification for the RC/OC/WC-135 and E-4B Aircrew Training and Courseware Development Contract. This modification exercises Option Year One. Work will take place in Nebraska. Expected completion date is in April 30, 2023.

October 26/20: SSHF L3 Technologies von a $23.8 million contract to perform survivable super high frequency (SSHF) upgrades to the E-4B platform. The SSHF upgrade seeks to build new capabilities that form the foundation for maintaining the E-4B as an effective nuclear command, control and communications platform. The E-4B is a militarized version of the 747-200 commercial airliner and acts as the United States’ principle airborne command and control operations center during times of war. Originally designed to carry the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff during a nuclear attack, the aircraft provides a highly survivable, command, control and communications center to direct US forces, execute emergency war orders and coordinate actions by civil authorities. Work will take place in Utah and Nebraska. Expected completion will be by April, 2022.

Sept 30/14: Boeing Aerospace Operations in OK City, OK receives a $9.8 million contract modification to design and develop a modern “E-4B low frequency transmit system,” through to the stage of system requirements review and finalized system requirements. $4.7 million is committed immediately, and this is just the 1st stage of a FY14$ 92 million effort to replace onboard LF/VLF systems that are considered obsolete. Initial Operational Capability for the new system is planned for FY 2019.

Low frequency is also known as the kilometer band, and is useful for long-range transmission because it can be bounced off of the ionosphere and diffract over obstacles. A small subset in the 30-50 kHz range can even communicate with submarines that aren’t too far underwater. Surer sub-surface communication can be had below this range through ELF and VLF sites, but those methods require structures whose size is measured in square miles. The USA decommissioned its fixed ELF sites in 2004, but continues to maintain several VLF locations.

Work will be performed at OK City, OK, and is expected to be complete by April 30, 2015. The USAF Life Cycle Management Center in Tinker AFB, OK, manages the contract (FA8106-07-C-0001, PO 0204). See also Briefing slide [PDF].

Sept 26/14: Boeing in Wichita, KS receives a sole-source $26.6 million task order for E-4B programmed depot maintenance and modifications. All funds are committed immediately, using USAF FY 2014 O&M and aircraft budgets.

Work will be performed at San Antonio, TX, and is expected to be complete by May 15/15. This award is the result of a sole-source acquisition. The USAF Life Cycle Management Center at Tinker AFB, OK manages the contract (FA8106-06-D-0001, 0047).

June 2/14: FAB-T terminals. Raytheon in Marlborough, MA receives a $298 million firm-fixed-price and cost-plus-fixed-fee contract modification for 84 FAB-T Command Post Terminals (CPT), which will allow broadband-speed reception from the USAF’s hardened, secure new AEHF satellites. FAB-T CPTs will equip E-4B NAOC and E-6B Mercury Block II command post aircraft, as well as some ground and mobile locations. After FAB-T reaches Milestone C, Phase 2 production contract options for Low-Rate Initial Production and beyond will open up for Raytheon, expanding the contract considerably.

It’s a sharp blow to prior incumbent Boeing, but not entirely unexpected. Buying FAB-T terminals for USAF B-2 and B-52 bombers, RC-135 SIGINT/ELINT aircraft, or other planes, would require another procurement process.

Work will be performed in Marlborough, MA and Largo, FL, with the Florida location serving as the assembly point. USAF FY 2013 through 2019 budgets will fund FAB-T buys over time, with just $31,274 committed immediately. Two bids were solicited and two received. The USAF Life Cycle Management Center/HNSK at Hanscom AFB, MA, solicited 2 bids, and received 2 (FA8705-13-C-0005, PO 0002). Sources: Pentagon DefenseLINK | Raytheon, “Raytheon awarded $298 million for US Air Force FAB-T satellite terminal program” | Defense News, “Space Fence, FAB-T Awards Show an Emboldened DoD”.

Dec 3/13: Support. Boeing in Wichita, KS receives a $75.7 million firm-fixed-price contract modification, attached to the $1 billion E-4B “Product Service Integrator” deal (q.v. Dec 8/05). They’ll provide support and spares, programmed depot maintenance, modifications, and related activities.

$24.5 million in FY 2014 operations and maintenance funds are committed immediately. The Pentagon said that work would be performed in Wichita, KS and is expected to be complete by Nov 30/14. That’s half-right. Wichita has traditionally been the E-4’s base of support, but Boeing announced their intent to close the plant in January 2012, and it’s still on schedule for closure in March 2014. E-4 work has been moved to Oklahoma City, OK and San Antonio, TX. The USAF Life Cycle Management Center/WLKLC at Tinker AFB, OK manages the contract (FA8106-06-D-0001, PO 0030). See also Wichita Eagle, “Boeing: Work from Defense contract won’t be done in Wichita”.

July 1/13: Broadband SATCOM. Raytheon Network Centric Systems in Marlborough, MA receives a $34 million contract modification to continued development and testing of air (E-4, E-6) and ground fixed and transportable command post terminals with presidential and national voice conferencing. The systems are a parallel project award under the Family of Advanced Beyond line-of-sight Terminals (FAB-T) program, which leverages new AEHF hardened broadband satellites. The goal is a production-ready system by September 2014.

Work will be performed at Marlborough, MA, and is expected to be complete by by October 2013. Fiscal 2012 Research and Development funds are being obligated at time of award. Air Force Life Cycle Management Center/HNSK, Hanscom Air Force Base, MA manages the contract (FA8307-12-C-0013, PO 0013).

Sept 10/12: Broadband SATCOM. The Raytheon Co. Network Centric Systems in Marlborough, MA, is being awarded a $70 million firm fixed price contract for development, testing and production of FAB-T engineering development models of air (E-4B, E-6B TACAMO), ground fixed and transportable Command Post Terminals with Presidential and National Voice Conferencing (PNVC). FAB-T terminals are designed to work with the US military’s new AEHF hardened broadband satellites.

The location of the performance is Marlborough, MA. Work is to be complete by July 2013. The AFLCMC/HSNK at Hanscom AFB, MA manages the contract (FA8307-12-C-0013).

Feb 24/12: Raytheon in Largo, FL receives an $8.9 million cost-plus-fixed-fee price contract for 1 installation lot of E-4B Mod Block 1 audio infrastructure obsolescence upgrades. Work will be performed in Largo, FL and is expected to be complete by Feb 28/13. The OC-ALC/GKSKH at Tinker Air Force Base, OK manages the contract (FA8106-12-C-0003).

FY 2005 – 2011



E-4B mission
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Sept 19/11: Delivery. Boeing returns another E-4B to Offut AFB, NE after its programmed depot maintenance (PDM). Boeing’s E-4B program manager, Glenn Winkler, referred to “over and above” surprise issues uncovered during the maintenance, but the maintenance and modifications were completed, and the plane flew on to Offut AFB, NE after a new paint job by Boeing partner L-3 in Greenville, TX. Boeing.

June 7/11: CNS/ATM upgrade. Boeing announces an unspecified USAF award for the E-4B Communications Navigation Surveillance/Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM) upgrade, Phase 1. The CNS/ATM upgrade will bring the fleet in line with new Federal Aviation Administration requirements for flight in civilian and international airspace, and will also allow the E-4Bs to operate more efficiently at airports and in crowded airspace. Their solution will be derived from current Boeing 737 cockpits, and the 4 E-4Bs will be upgraded in 3 phases.

Phase 1 includes next-generation flight-management hardware and software, as well as a multimode receiver radio that combines several aircraft systems into a single component. Boeing Global Transport & Executive Systems (GTES) will incorporate the Phase 1 upgrades during the E-4Bs’ regularly scheduled maintenance cycle at Boeing’s Wichita, KS facility. The initial E-4B CNS/ATM Phase 1 aircraft is expected to enter flight test in Q4 2012.

Aug 20/10: Accident. A USAF Air Combat Command Accident Investigation Board rules that a May 12/10 accident at Offut AFB, NE was caused by pilot error. The E-4B’s tail hit the runway between 2-3 feet past the centerline, causing about $3.1 million worth of damage. The aircraft was quickly brought to a stop, with no injuries or further property damage.

According to the report, the board ruled that major factors included misperception of the operational conditions in altitude, glide path and descent rate on the aircraft’s short final; breakdown in visual scan during a night landing; overcontrolling the input to the yoke of the aircraft; and procedural error recovery technique that resulted in too much pitch. USAF.

Sept 21/07: Delivery. Boeing announces the delivery of a refurbished E-4B National Airborne Operations Center to the U.S. Air Force Strategic Command after completing programmed depot maintenance (PDM) at its modification center in Wichita, KS.

Dec 8/05: Support. Boeing in Wichita, KS receives a maximum $1 billion indefinite delivery/ indefinite quantity contract fee to be the E-4B’s Product Support Integrator (PSI): a sole source, performance based effort to take care of logistics, maintenance, modernization, and engineering work, combining a number of separate contracts (CLS, ESS, MPS, & Block I) into one contract. Boeing has supported the E-4 fleet of 4 modified Boeing 747 aircraft for 25 years now, offering contractor logistics support, engineering services and technical order support.

Solicitation began August 2005, and negotiations were complete December 2005. The indefinite delivery/ indefinite quantity contract will have a 5-year basic period, plus 1 more 5-year option period, which would extend it to FY 2016. The Oklahoma City ALC at Tinker AFB, OK (FA8106-06-D-0001, announcement Feb 13/06). Boeing’s corporate release pegs the total value at up to $2 billion.

$1 billion performance-based support deal

Additional Readings

* USAF – E-4B.

* Boeing – E-4B Advanced Airborne Command Post.

* TIME Battleland (April 2/13) – Costly Flight Hours. If the C-5C is removed as a massive outlier (even compared to other C-5s), The E-4B is the most expensive plane per flight hour, just ahead of Air Force One. Both cost over $160,000 by AFCAP figures, which include aircraft modifications as a cost.

* Defense Media Network (April 23/11) – E-4B Emergency Command Post Doubles as SECDEF’s Ride.

Other C2 Aircraft

* DID – Boeing Contracted to Support Air Force One VC-25s.

* DID – The USA’s E-6 Fleet: TAke Charge, And Move Out!.

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