US military nuclear command-and-control aircraft have increased their daily flight numbers since Russia invaded Ukraine, a US official told CNN, a sign that the US strategic force has reacted one way or another to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The fleet of Boeing E-6 Mercury aircraft has flown more frequently since the invasion, which has not previously been reported. US nuclear weapons commander says US strategic force posture has not changed, but increased flights mark a change over the past week, even before Russian President Vladimir Putin said that would put its own strategic force, including nuclear weapons, on heightened alert.
Notably, the increase in the frequency of flights happened even before Putin intervened, which the Pentagon called “unnecessary” and “escalating.” The most frequent flights began a day before Russia invaded Ukraine, with US officials warning the assault could begin within hours.
“I am satisfied with the posture of my forces,” Admiral Charles Richard, commander of US Strategic Command, told a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday. “I made no recommendations for changes,” he continued, saying nuclear command and control was the “most defended, most resilient” it had ever been.
The United States keeps some of its ballistic missiles on high alert, ready to be launched within minutes if the president’s order comes. The United States also retains a launch-under-attack option to fire intercontinental ballistic missiles in the event of a confirmed attack.
Richard told lawmakers he was staying in Omaha, Nebraska, the headquarters of strategic command, so he could “assess and be satisfied with our defensive position.”
More background: The E-6 fleet has flown about seven sorties a day since Feb. 23, according to aircraft tracking data on ADS-B Exchange, a flight-tracking website that picks up an aircraft’s transponder signal. The surge in flights began when US and Western officials warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could be imminent. Prior to this date, the E-6 fleet made approximately three to four sorties per day, depending on data transmissions.
The E-6 is a command and control aircraft designed as a platform for a “survivable, reliable, and enduring” link between senior military commanders, including the President as Commander-in-Chief, and the strategic and non-strategic forces which carry out these orders.
The aircraft has the highly classified critical request for communications with ballistic missile submarines and ballistic missile silos, known as the TACAMO mission, which stands for “Take Charge and Move Out”. The E-6 can also launch ballistic missiles from silos using the Airborne Launch Control System (ALCS).
Captain Ron Flanders, the spokesman for US Strategic Command, which oversees US nuclear weapons, said: “The Department of Defense routinely conducts and modifies flight operations as required. We do not comment on the specifics of these operations or how they are conducted.
“The E-6 is meant to serve as a survivable and redundant airborne command and control asset, keeping the ties between our civilian political leadership and nuclear forces intact in the event of a crisis,” said Ankit Panda, a nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment. for international peace.
“I have no reason to believe that the ongoing flights are anything other than routine or elements of exercises,” he added.
Notably, the increased frequency of flights occurred even before Putin placed his deterrent forces, including nuclear weapons, on heightened alert over the weekend, which the Pentagon called of “useless” and “escalation”. The most frequent flights began a day before Russia invaded Ukraine, with US officials warning the assault could begin within hours.
Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists, said E-6 flights occur regularly. The increase in flights, he speculated, could be an added precaution given the risks posed by a Russian invasion of Ukraine so close to US NATO allies.
“You can imagine there was an order that said we have to have this command and control system in place and ready in case crazy, unforeseen scenarios happen,” Kristensen said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that there is therefore an increased nuclear alert status over what we normally have, but you can imagine that they have this enhanced communications system operational.”
Kristensen also said the increase in flights could be a way to send a message to Russia that the United States is watching.
“It would be a way of communicating heightened vigilance so to speak,” he said.