This Feb. 3 marks a special day for the men and women who fly, maintain and control the U.S. Strategic Command’s Airborne Command Post, also known as Looking Glass...
The USSTRATCOM Looking Glass in it's current incarnation, the E-6B.
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This Feb. 3 marks a special day for the men and women who fly, maintain and control the U.S. Strategic Command’s Airborne Command Post, also known as Looking Glass. Friday marks the 45th anniversary of the Looking Glass mission, which began on Feb. 3, 1961.
The world has changed greatly since that first operational sortie, however some things have remained constant, such as the ability of Looking Glass to command, control and communicate with American strategic forces and the steadfast professionalism of those involved in this crucial mission.
In the early 1960s, the Strategic Air Command wanted a survivable means to control the nation’s bomber, tanker, reconnaissance and intercontinental ballistic missile forces. A mobile platform was needed to replace the underground command center if it was destroyed by enemy attack or otherwise incapacitated. Until the early 1960s, the only threat posed to SAC was that of the small Soviet bomber force. However, the advent of ICBMs, with their rapid flight time and destructive power, forced the SAC leadership to adapt to the new threat.
The Air Force selected highly specialized EC-135s aircraft to fulfill the new mission. These aircraft had an extensive array of then state-of-the-art communications and monitoring equipment, and room for a large battlestaff headed up by a general officer who served as the Airborne Emergency Action Officer, or AEAO. The aircraft was given the name Looking Glass because it mirrored the ability of the SAC underground command center to control the nation’s nuclear forces. Additionally, Looking Glass EC-135s could transfer fuel to other aircraft via a KC-135 style boom.
On that cold February day in 1961, the Strategic Air Command officials directed Looking Glass to perform continuous airborne alert. From 1961 on there was an EC-135 ABNCP airborne around-the-clock, every day of the year until July 24, 1990, a period of 29 years, five months and 21 days. Over 280,000 flight hours had been flown without accident, a feat directly attributed to the spectacular accomplishments of the EC-135 maintenance crews. Likewise, the supporting security forces, operational support troops and staff were key factors in 29 successful years of airborne alert.
However, the end of the Cold War did not mean the end of the Looking Glass mission, and aircraft and crews have since maintained 24-hour ground alert, with the ability to scramble launch within minutes. Despite the fall of the Soviet Union, instability still existed throughout the world in the 1990s, and the requirement for a survivable, endurable system to control the forces still existed. Nonetheless, the appearance of the ABNCP and its operations changed as well.
In the mid-1990s, the Air Force began to retire the EC-135 airframe as part of the overall reduction in forces; however, thanks to the U.S. Navy, the newly designated U.S. Strategic Command had gained a new aircraft for the Looking Glass mission on 1 October 1998—the E-6B Mercury.
The E-6B utilized the same Boeing 707-style airframe as the EC-135. The Navy had purchased the last 707s built as E-6As with newer, more fuel efficient engines and configured as the TACAMO, or Take Charge and Move Out aircraft. The primary mission of TACAMO was providing communications with the nation’s fleet ballistic missile submarine force. The Navy upgraded the E-6A by installing a battlestaff compartment, MILSTAR satellite communications suite, and the Air Force Airborne Launch Control System, or ALCS. The ALCS system provides ABNCP aircraft with the ability to target and launch Minuteman III (and until recently, Peacekeeper) missiles when authorized by the president. In fact, an E-6B from Offutt successfully launched a Minuteman III ICBM at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., in September, again proving the capabilities of the E-6B and its airborne missileers.
From 1998 on, E-6Bs have been on alert, in both the TACAMO and ABNCP configurations; indeed the aircraft and aircrew are provided by the U.S. Navy’s Strategic Communication Wing ONE, headquartered at Tinker AFB, Okla. When deployed to Offutt, E-6B aircraft pick up the USSTRATCOM battlestaff and are uploaded with the necessary materials to become the ABNCP. Battlestaff members are selectively chosen officers and noncommissioned officers who provide the USSTRATCOM commander with the ability to conduct global strike operations. Just like Air Force missileers and Navy ballistic missile crews, the ABNCP team are on-alert ready to respond instantly, and if necessary, conduct emergency war-order actions, global strikes or provide a reliable communication relay in response to a myriad threats.
Although continuous airborne operations ended in 1990, ABNCP crews routinely demonstrate the ability to perform such duty, and have done so on numerous occasions. Time and time again, ABNCP has proven its constant ability to provide survivable, endurable and reliable communications for the nation’s military and civilian leadership.
Much has changed since first Looking Glass took flight. What hasn’t changed is the ability of the ABNCP and the people who fly, maintain and support it to adapt to the new challenges faced by our nation. As they have for 45 years, the Looking Glass continues its constant vigil and it continues to shine.