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Looking Glass (or Operation Looking Glass) is the code name for an airborne command center operated by the United States. It provides command and control of U.S. nuclear forces in the event that ground-based command centers are destroyed or otherwise rendered inoperable. In such an event, the general officer serving as the Airborne Emergency Action Officer (AEAO) on Looking Glass assumes by devolution the authority of the National Command Authorities and can command execution of nuclear attacks. The AEAO is supported by a battle staff of approximately 20 people, with another dozen responsible for the operation of the aircraft systems.

The Looking Glass was initiated by the U.S. Air Force's Strategic Air Command in 1961 and operated by the 34th Air Refueling Squadron, Offutt AFB, Nebraska. In August 1966 the mission transferred to the 38th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, the 2d Airborne Command and Control Squadron in April 1970, to the 7th Airborne Command and Control Squadron in July 1994, and to the U.S. Navy in October 1998. The Strategic Air Command began the Looking Glass mission on February 3, 1961, using EC-135C[1] From the Airborne Command Post (ABNCP) conception aircraft based at its headquarters at Offutt AFB, Nebraska backed up by aircraft flying with the Second Air Force / 913th Air Refueling Squadron at Barksdale AFB Louisiana, Eighth Air Force / 99th Air Refueling Squadron at Westover AFB, Massachusetts, and Fifteenth Air Force / 22d Air Refueling Squadron, March AFB, California. EC-135 Looking Glass aircraft were airborne 24 hours a day for over 29 years,[2] until July 24, 1990, when "The Glass" ceased continuous airborne alert, but remained on ground or airborne alert 24 hours a day. The one break in the schedule occurred March 4, 1980, when a 1st Airborne Command and Control Squadron E-4 operated a combined Nightwatch / Looking Glass mission, Scheduled for an eight-hour mission, it ended up flying a double (16 hours) due to bad weather at both Offutt and Ellsworth.

The airborne command post is referred to as Looking Glass because its mission "mirrors" ground-based command, control, and communications located at the USSTRATCOM Global Operations Center (GOC) at Offutt Air Force Base. It has also been called the "Doomsday Plane," since its role would only be necessary in the event that the ground nuclear command centers at Offutt, the National Military Command Center, and Site R were destroyed. The Looking Glass is equipped with the Airborne Launch Control System, capable of transmitting launch commands to U.S. ground-based ICBMs in the event that the ground launch control centers are rendered inoperable. At DEFCON 2 or higher, the Looking Glass pilot and co-pilot were both required to wear an eye patch, retrieved from their Emergency War Order (EWO) kit. In the event of a surprise blinding flash from a nuclear detonation, the eye patch would prevent blindness in the covered eye, thus enabling them to see in at least one eye and continue flying. Later, the eye patch was replaced by goggles that would instantaneously turn opaque when exposed to a nuclear flash, then rapidly clear for normal vision.

The Looking Glass is also designed to help ensure continuity and reconstitution of the US government in the event of a nuclear attack on North America. Although the two types of aircraft are distinct, the Doomsday Plane nickname is also frequently associated with the Boeing E-4 "Nightwatch" Advanced Airborne Command Post mission and aircraft. The Looking Glass was the anchor in what was known as the World Wide Airborne Command Post (WWABNCP) network. This network of specially equipped EC-135 aircraft would launch from ground alert status and establish air-to-air wireless network connections in the event of a U.S. national emergency. Members of the WWABNCP network included:

  • (1) Operation "Silk Purse" for the Commander in Chief, U.S. European Command (USCINCEUR), based at RAF Mildenhall in the United Kingdom;
  • (2) Operation "Scope Light" for the Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Forces (CINCLANT), based at Langley AFB, VA;
  • (3) Operation "Blue Eagle" for the Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command (USCINCPAC), based at Hickam AFB, HI; and
  • (4) Operation "Nightwatch" which supported the President of the United States and were based at Andrews AFB, Maryland. In the early 1970s the E-4B aircraft replaced the EC-135s on this mission.

The Eastern Auxiliary (EAST Aux) and Western Auxiliary (West Aux) Command Posts were also part of the WWABNCP ("wah-bin-cop") network and were capable of assuming responsibility for Looking Glass as the anchor. The West Aux 906th Air Refueling Squadron was based at Minot AFB, North Dakota and moved to the 4th Airborne Command & Control Squadron at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota in April 1970 and the East Aux mission 301st Air Refueling Squadron was based at Lockbourne AFB, Ohio and moved to the 3rd Airborne Command & Control Squadron at Grissom AFB, Indiana in April 1970. After 1975 East Aux would be assumed from the Looking Glass backup ground alert aircraft launched from Offutt AFB.

Current status

On October 1, 1998 the U.S. Navy's fleet of E-6Bs replaced the EC-135C in performing the "Looking Glass" mission, previously carried out for 37 years by the U.S. Air Force; unlike the original Looking Glass aircraft, the E-6Bs are modified Boeing 707 aircraft. This new mission allows the President and the Secretary of Defense direct command and control capability for America's strategic forces of ballistic nuclear missile submarines, intercontinental nuclear missiles and strategic bombers. With the assumption of this new mission, a battle staff now flies with the TACAMO crew.[3]

If the USSTRATCOM GOC is unable to function in its role, the E-6B TACAMO can assume command of all U.S. nuclear forces. Flying aboard each ABNCP is a crew of 22, which includes an aircrew, an Information Systems Officer and team, an Airborne Emergency Action Officer (an Admiral or General officer), an Intelligence Officer, Meteorologist, and an Airborne Battle Operations Team. In addition to being able to launch ICBMs, the E-6B can communicate Emergency Action Messages (EAM) to nuclear submarines running at depth by extending a 2½-mile-long trailing wire antenna (TWA) for use with the Survivable Low Frequency Communications System (SLFCS).

There was some speculation that the "mystery plane" seen flying over the White House on September 11, 2001 was some newer incarnation of Looking Glass. However, as indicated by MGen Don Shepherd (Ret.), speaking on CNN on September 12, 2007, the plane circling the White House on 9/11 resembled an E-4B which was likely launched from Nightwatch ground alert at Andrews Air Force Base.

Due to its vast array of communications equipment, including secure voice and high bandwidth satellite, the Looking Glass has been used to support non-nuclear (conventional and covert) battle management missions, notably those associated with Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom. In the early 1980s, Looking Glass was used in Operation Cobbler's Knee which provided temporary command post support to U.S. operatives in Honduras for what was later revealed as the Iran-Contra Affair. Supporting these and other conventional or covert battle management operations is treated with great secrecy due to the extreme sensitivity of associating the Looking Glass with the potential for a nuclear option. Also, for similar sensitivities, neither the President nor the Vice President will ride aboard, nor typically visit a Looking Glass aircraft while it's on the ground, should other nations' intelligence agencies perceive it as a preparatory step for a surprise U.S. nuclear launch.[citation needed]

See also


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