Every year, the US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) undertakes training exercises incorporating their assets and Government agencies. One of these exercises is named GLOBAL LIGHTNING. Adam Chittenden looks at what aircraft are involved and what this exercise is designed to achieve.
“Global Lightning 14 is designed to provide training opportunities and to test and validate command and control procedures for U.S. Strategic Command and its subordinate units” said Army Lt. Col. Stephanie Bounds. Adm. Cecil Haney, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command explains what the exercise provides to the US: “This exercise provides unique training opportunities to incorporate the most current technology and techniques in support of our mission. Continued focus and investment in our strategic capabilities allow USSTRATCOM to deter, dissuade, and defeat current and future threats to the U.S. and our allies.”
So what does that mean?
USSTRATCOM, based at Offutt AFB, Nebraska uses this command and control/field training exercise to simulate deterring, detecting and then retaliating against attacks towards the United States and its allies on an annual basis. It’s usually a five-day exercise involving most, if not all of their assets culminating in simulated intercontinental missile strikes and a strategic long-range bombing campaign in the latter stages of the exercise. A large proportion of this exercise focuses on communication between JFCC SGS (Joint Functional Component Command for Space and Global Strike) and other Command and Control centres throughout the world. A crucial asset in this communication is the E-6B Mercury or TACAMO (TAke Charge And Move Out).
The E-6B Mercury, operated by the US Navy, is a converted Boeing 707 aircraft in the ABNCP (Airborne Command Post) role with communications relay capability. Initially designated the E-6A Hermes, 16 aircraft were delivered with the first entering service in 1989 with VQ-3. The aircraft was renamed ‘Mercury’ in 1991 at the request of the US Navy. The upgrade to E-6B featured an off the shelf Boeing 737 next generation cockpit, a battle-staff area and updated mission equipment. The E-6B was accepted into service in December 1997 with the final delivery taking place in December 2006. It has a range of 7,590 miles and a loiter time of 6 hours (extendable with the option of in-flight refueling) either relaying messages air to air, ground to air, air to ground or ground to ground if required. Single handedly in the ‘Looking Glass’ role, it will act as commander to the US nuclear forces if Offutt AFB was either destroyed or was unable to communicate. The term “looking glass” is used because it “mirrors” the abilities of the US NAVY to control nuclear forces. Whether on the ground or airborne it is on alert 24 hours a day and USSTRATCOM can react at a moment’s notice and assume control. Painted ‘anti-flash’ white and kitted out with anti-EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse) electronics and systems, it’s designed to be survivable in the event of all out nuclear war. Based at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma, VQ-3 and VQ-4 are the only squadrons managing these aircraft.
Messages are passed to assets via EAMs (Emergency Action Messages). EAMs are highly structured, authenticated messages primarily used in the command and control of nuclear forces and they are alpha-numerically coded over High Frequency (3-30 MHZ). Other messages can be passed via SATCOM (Satellite Communications) or other modes including data links. Transmissions to ballistic missile submarines can be performed using a VLF (Very Low Frequency) transmitter. In this role the aircraft orbits in a circle at approximately 30-50 degrees of bank with its retractable 20,000ft long antenna trailing. The antenna will ‘stall’ causing it to drop vertically in a spiral so the VLF radio waves can penetrate the seas and reach submarines thousands of miles away. The E-6B would be key to the survivability and retaliation of the US should nuclear war break out.
Another aircraft in a similar role to the E-6B is the E-4B NOAC (National Airborne Operations Center). Also an ABNCP, four aircraft are in service based at Offutt AFB, Nebraska and are operated by the 1st Airborne Command and Control Squadron of the 55th Wing. This aircraft is known as ‘The Doomsday Plane’ and in the case of nuclear or terrorist attack, the aircraft becomes a flying Pentagon with the Secretary of Defense at the helm along with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They can coordinate and launch nuclear weapons and communicate to anywhere in the world if required. Unlike the E-6B, the United States Air Force (USAF) operates the E-4B NOAC. With enough room for two spare crews, this aircraft can be airborne for days at a time with air-to-air refueling and also being able to transmit on HF, SATCOM and VLF using its very own retractable antenna.
The ‘offensive’ STRATCOM operated aircraft are the B-52H and B-2A. The B-52 has been the mainstay of the USAF’s Global Strike Command since 1955. Weighing in with a max takeoff capacity of 220 metric tons, and with 31.5 tons of ordnance, it’s certainly a formidable asset. With air-to-air refueling, the B-52 can make its presence known anywhere in the world. Based at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana (2nd & 307th Bomb Wings) and Minot AFB, North Dakota (5th Bomb Wing) they can be found forward-operated at one of the foreign bases such as Andersen AFB, Guam, Diego Garcia Military Base and RAF Fairford here in the United Kingdom. The drawback with the B-52 is its huge radar signature; to mitigate this a B-52 kitted out for the nuclear strike capability can carry up to 20 nuclear armed Air Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCM). Using a terrain-matching navigation system called TERCOM and a range that exceeds 1,500 miles, the AGM-86B gives superb standoff distance not only away from the blast radius but also away from enemy territory. AGM-86B are set to be replaced by the LRSO or Long-Range Stand-Off weapon eventually but as the decision on the contract won’t be made until fiscal year 2018 and it’s anticipated that the AGM-86B will be in use up to 2030 with guidance, flight control system and warhead arming upgrades.
For targets that require the element of surprise and/or involve the penetration of enemy territory with active air-defenses, the B-2A finds its niche. At the 509th Bomb Wing based at Whiteman AFB, Missouri, 19 of the 20 B-2As are based there and like the B-52H, also have a truly global reach. With the B-2A’s low-observable or ‘Stealth’ capability including a radar absorbing coating, carefully designed plan form and heat diffusing exhausts the B-2A can bring the action to the ‘front door’ of the enemy undetected, anywhere in the world. A fine example of this was during Operation Odyssey Dawn where three B-2As flew nonstop to Libya from Whiteman AFB to attack targets with conventional weapons with the assistance of 15-20 tankers. In its nuclear strike fit, the B-2A can carry 16 1.1 ton B83 Nuclear Bombs. The B-2 is the only aircraft that can carry large air-to-surface weapons in a stealth configuration.
On the 14th May 2014, two B-2A Spirit bombers call sign FOWL 11/12 departed Whiteman AFB to take part in Exercise Global Lightning. Being refueled midair on Air Refueling Track 20 which runs the length of Nova Scotia by KC-135s call sign ETHYL 91/92, they made their way across the Atlantic before being refueled again by 100th ARW KC-135s based at RAF Mildenhall, UK, in Santa Maria airspace, turning back before they reached Europe. They were refueled again on AR-20 on the return leg by ETHYL93/94. In the meantime, at least 8 B-52H bombers flew a sortie on a currently unknown route. The B-2A sortie was coordinated and supported by E-6B TACAMO aircraft acting as SKYMASTER, one off the East coast of the US and one operating in North East Germany. Messages were passed in code by the B-2As over HF and it’s believed that a relatively new data link between the B-2A and E-6B aircraft was used.
Once again, the USAF successfully rehearsed their global reach, and their ability to deploy offensive assets effectively and quickly. As well as providing the opportunity to practice the strategies that are in place to protect itself and its allies, Exercise Global Lightning has demonstrated to the world that despite their funding and budget cuts which have occurred within the air force, the US capabilities remain strong and their role as a super power remains.