Minutes earlier than President Donald Trump tweeted on Friday morning that he and First Girl Melania Trump had examined optimistic for Covid-19, two Boeing E-6B Mercury planes confirmed up in public flight knowledge—one charting a course off the East Coast of the USA and one off the West Coast. Even in pandemic occasions there’s nothing uncommon about seeing planes on a majority of these paths in a single day, however E-6Bs aren’t regular business plane. They’re used for sending ballistic missile instructions.
After information broke on Thursday that Trump adviser Hope Hicks had examined optimistic for the novel coronavirus, aircraft spotters and social media prognosticators drew a connection to the E-6Bs they noticed taking off. Maybe, they recommended, it was a sign that Trump had examined optimistic, and through this delicate second US Strategic Command was working to ship a message of deterrence to its adversaries. The thought went viral, heightening confusion and worry concerning the implications of Trump’s analysis.
The reality is that whereas they’re exceptionally attention-grabbing planes, E-6Bs take off, fly, and land recurrently as a part of the US missile protection equipment. They must be prepared at a second’s discover, so they’re.
“I can verify these flights had been preplanned missions,” US Strategic Command media operation chief Karen Singer instructed WIRED on Friday. “Any timing to the president’s announcement is only coincidental.”
E-6Bs, that are primarily based on Boeing 707s, are primarily communication relay stations constructed to obtain navy orders from the president of the US and the secretary of protection, after which convey these instructions to US ballistic missile submarines. They’re additionally outfitted to remotely management Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles by means of a platform referred to as the Airborne Launch Management System. The thought is for E-6Bs to function a redundancy in case ground-based communication programs are disrupted. And so they’re additionally essential for establishing line-of-sight communication connections that require proximity. The E-6B mission total is named TACAMO, or Take Cost And Transfer Out.
“These plane take off on a regular basis. I definitely didn’t draw any conclusions from it,” says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program on the Middlebury Institute for Worldwide Research in Monterey, California.
The planes have some dramatic capabilities. One of the important is their Very Low Frequency communication platform, which is used to achieve nuclear ballistic missile submarines all the way down to 60 toes beneath the ocean’s floor. These stealth submarines should conceal their positions and infrequently cannot rise to shallower depths or ship up buoys to assist communication. As a substitute, each communication relay planes and the submarines themselves have to be outfitted with large antennas, and even then VLF programs are nonetheless extraordinarily high-latency, low-bandwidth, and low-throughput, which means it takes a very long time to ship very small quantities of information.
To transmit even the shortest messages to deep-sea submarines, E-6Bs carry out particular airborne maneuvers. These are primarily steep, tight turns that go on for lengthy intervals of time, looping the aircraft round and round to get the antennas in a vertical place transmitting straight down into the water. Different navy planes are additionally outfitted for VLF communication, however it’s particularly core to the mission of E-6Bs.
Although E-6Bs aren’t continuously flying as a part of Strategic Command’s Airborne Command Put up, their predecessor aircraft, the Air Pressure EC-135, was a part of a mission that had at the very least one aircraft within the air always for greater than 29 years, from February 3, 1961, so July 24, 1990. Protection is probably not that fixed at this time, however readiness workout routines are nonetheless extraordinarily frequent.
“On a day-to-day foundation, individuals don’t take into consideration the truth that the USA is postured to make use of greater than 1,000 nuclear weapons on a couple of minutes’ discover,” the Middlebury Institute’s Lewis says. “They only don’t take into consideration that, as a result of that appears loopy. And so when one thing occurs and other people look and so they see the traditional readiness stage they suppose to themselves, ‘Oh my God, this have to be a disaster, as a result of why would you may have all these forces on alert?!’ However Trump getting sick didn’t trigger this. That is what it’s like on a regular basis, and in the event you don’t like that then possibly that’s a dialog to have.”