The US military’s nuclear command and control aircraft have increased their number of daily flights since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a US official tells CNN, a sign that the US strategic force has responded in some way to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The fleet of Boeing E-6 Mercury aircraft has flown more frequently since the invasion, which has not been previously reported. The commander of America’s nuclear weapons says the posture of the US strategic force has not changed, but the increased flights mark a shift in the last week, even before Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would put his own strategic force, including nuclear weapons, on heightened alert.
Notably, the increase in frequency of the flights occurred even before Putin made the move, which the Pentagon called “unnecessary” and “escalatory.” The more frequent flights began one day before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as US officials warned the assault could begin within hours.
“I am satisfied with the posture of my forces,” Admiral Charles Richard, the commander of US Strategic Command, told a House Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday. “I have made no recommendations to make any changes,” he continued, saying that the nuclear command and control was the “most defended, most resilient” it has ever been.
The US retains a portion of its ballistic missiles under a state of heightened alert, ready to be launched within minutes should the order come down from the President. The US 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 can “assess and be satisfied in terms of our defensive posture.”
More background: The fleet of E-6s have been flying approximately seven sorties each day since Feb. 23, according to airplane tracking data on ADS-B Exchange, a flight tracking website that picks up on an aircraft’s transponder signal. The increase in flights began as US and western officials warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could be imminent. Prior to that date, the E-6 fleet was flying approximately three to four sorties each day, tracking data shows.
The E-6 is a command-and-control aircraft designed as a platform for a “survivable, reliable, and endurable” link between the military’s top commanders, including the President as commander-in-chief, and the strategic and non-strategic forces who carry out those orders.
The aircraft has the critical highly classified ask of 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).
Capt. Ron Flanders, the spokesperson for US Strategic Command, which oversees America’s nuclear weapons, said, “The Department of Defense routinely conducts and varies its flight operations as appropriate. We do not comment on the specifics of these operations nor on the manner in which they are conducted.”
“The E-6 is meant to serve as a survivable and redundant means of airborne command and control, keeping links between the our civilian political leadership and nuclear forces intact in a crisis,” said Ankit Panda, a nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“I have no reason to believe the ongoing flights are anything but routine or parts of exercises,” he added.
Notably, the increased frequency of the flights occurred even before Putin placed his deterrence forces, including nuclear arms, on a heightened state of alert over the weekend, which the Pentagon called “unnecessary” and “escalatory.” The more frequent flights began one day before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as US officials warned the assault could begin within hours.
Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said the E-6 flights happen routinely. The increased flights, he speculated, may be an extra precaution given the risks involved with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine so close to the US’s NATO allies.
“You could imagine there’s been an order that’s gone out that says we need to have this command-and-control system up and ready in case there are any crazy, unforeseen scenarios happening,” said Kristensen. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that therefore there’s a heightened nuclear alert status compared to what we normally have, but you can imagine they have that enhanced communication system up and running.”
Kristensen also said the increased flights may be a way of sending a message to Russia that the US is watching.
“That would be one way to communicate heightened vigilance so to speak," he said.