USAF kept a command post in the sky 24 hours a day for 29 years. How the US Air Force kept a command post in the sky 24 hours a day for 29 years in case of a nuclear emergency
The nuclear war strategy of the US relies upon its capacity to communicate with and control its nuclear forces under the most hazardous of conditions. For close to 30 years, this vital defense plan was laid in the hands of 11 different converted EC-135Cs code-named “Looking Glass.”
Spy Glass (or Operation Looking Glass) is the code name for an airborne command and control center operated by the United States. In more recent years it has been more officially referred to as the ABNCP (Airborne Command Post).
Operation Looking Glass was introduced by the US Air Force’s Strategic Command on Feb. 3, 1961. It was prepared to take over all operational control of nuclear forces if the ground-based command centers were destroyed or rendered unusable.
If that devastating nuclear event occurred, the general officer serving as the Airborne Emergency Action Officer (AEAO) aboard the “Looking Glass” would be required by law to assume the authority of the National Command Authority and directly command execution during a nuclear attack.
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To avoid any potential enemy threat from jamming the unique aircraft’s signal, the specialized planes came equipped with high-frequency antennas on the wings. Along with the AEAO, a crew consisting of approximately 15-20 airmen would man their solitary post for several hours a day.
After its maiden flight in 1961, there was always a “Looking Glass” plane flying somewhere above the United States in case of an emergency, 24 hours a day.
On June 1, 1992, Operation Looking Glass was grounded from service and replaced.
It provides command and control of U.S. nuclear forces in the event that ground-based command centers have been destroyed or otherwise rendered inoperable. In such an event, the general officer aboard the Looking Glass serves as the Airborne Emergency Action Officer (AEAO) and by law assumes the authority of the National Command Authority and could command the execution of nuclear attacks. The AEAO is supported by a battle staff of approximately 20 people, with another dozen responsible for operating the aircraft systems. The name Looking Glass, which is another name for a mirror, was chosen for the Airborne Command Post because the mission operates in parallel with the underground command post at Offutt Air Force Base.
On October 1, 1998, the United States Navy 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 have modified Boeing 707 aircraft, not the military-only KC-135. The E-6B provides the National Command Authority with the same capability as the EC-135 fleet to control the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force, nuclear-capable bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). With the assumption of this mission, a USSTRATCOM battle staff now flies with the TACAMO crew.
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 retired Major General Donald Shepperd, 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.