Air Force News

Looking Glass passes torch

Released: 22 Sep 1998

by Navy Journalist Second Class Michael J. Meridith
U.S. Strategic Command Public Affairs

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. (AFNS) -- The nuclear threat that spawned the Looking Glass mission may seem to many a distant memory in a world without dueling superpowers. That mission began more than 37 years ago, with the Air Force's EC-135 aircraft and its task of being an airborne nuclear command post.

In the event the Strategic Air Command (now U.S. Strategic Command) underground Command Center was destroyed or became disabled, Looking Glass would take over. In fact, the term "Looking Glass" refers to the EC-135's ability to mirror all the capabilities of that command center.

Although the Cold War is over, a radically changing world environment, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and political uncertainty in countries possessing nuclear weapons are just a few reasons why the Looking Glass mission remains as vital today as when it began in 1961. That mission however, will soon be undergoing a change of "platform."

On Sept. 25, the Air Force's venerable EC-135 aircraft will hand over its Looking Glass mission of command, control, and communications of the nation's strategic nuclear forces to the Navy's E-6B "Take Charge and Move Out" aircraft.

The roots of this change extend back decades, to the height of the Cold War. In the early 1960s, the U.S. Navy deployed the first ballistic missile submarine fleet, establishing the submarine-launched ballistic missile as a key element of the nation's nuclear triad, which also included Air Force strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles

Like the Air Force, the Navy also developed a method for maintaining constant control of their nuclear forces. The same year that EC-135s took on the Looking Glass mission, modified Marine Corps KC-130s (re-designated EC-130Qs) took on the mission of command and control of SSBN forces. The EC-130Qs were equipped with a very low-frequency radio transmitters contained in vans loaded aboard the aircraft.. Despite force modernization and advances, both airframes displayed a high degree of reliability and remained essentially unchanged for decades.

For 29 years, the EC-135s conducted continuous airborne operations, accumulating more than 281,000 accident-free flying hours.

"I've flown more than 100 airborne alert missions on the Glass and it's something I'm proud to have done and wouldn't have traded for money," said Lt. Col. Charles Harper, a member of the Looking Glass battlestaff. "The Glass is the world's most powerful airframe by virtue of the fact that it commands so much firepower. It has been a deterrence mainstay for 30 years."

The EC-130Qs maintained a similarly impressive record, but advances in submarine technology in the early 1980s dictated corresponding advances in the aging airframe. Between 1989 and 1992, 16 E-6A Mercury aircraft entered service to replace the EC-130Q. These new aircraft offered more than double the range and almost twice the speed of their predecessor.

The end of the Cold War saw other important changes. The EC-135 was taken off continuous airborne alert in 1990, although it remained on ground alert. In 1992, SAC was disestablished, and the command, control, and communications mission of all elements of the triad was placed under the newly-formed USSTRATCOM. Shortly thereafter, the secretary of defense directed the Air Force and Navy secretaries to begin consolidating the Looking Glass mission aboard TACAMO. The impetus for the change was the cost-savings generated by using one aircraft to do the job that had formerly been done by two.

"TACAMO was always simply a relay platform," explained Navy Lt. Dan J. Fee, aircraft commander on TACAMO's first Looking Glass operational flight. "We got a message that came from another aircraft or ground command center and we would relay that message to our submarines and to other platforms. Now, since we're married up with Looking Glass, we'll carry the folks on board who will directly pass the National Command Authority's guidance simultaneously to all three legs of our nuclear triad."

In preparation for the transfer of the Looking Glass mission to the TACAMO, the Navy began a series of modifications to the E-6A. These changes consisted of adding communications equipment and command consoles used for the Looking Glass mission. With the modifications complete, the aircraft were re-designated E-6Bs.

Six years later, the defense secretary directive is about to become a reality. Most of the 15 EC-135s have been retired to the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center or "boneyard" at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. The rest will follow shortly after TACAMO completely assumes the Looking Glass mission Sept. 25. Currently five TACAMO E-6Bs are operational in the Looking Glass mission, but the remaining 11 are slated for completion by 2002.

Although under the operational control of USSTRATCOM, the aircraft belong to the Navy's Strategic Communications Wing One located at Tinker AFB, Okla.

"The transition will be beneficial to the mission," concluded Maj. Gen. Neubert, who recently completed his final flight as airborne emergency action officer aboard a TACAMO. "The airplane is a more modern airplane and has more capabilities than the EC-135. It's better for the taxpayer and better for the defense of the nation."


* Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
* Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.
* Tinker Air Force Base, Okla.
* U.S. Marine Corps
* U.S. Navy
* U.S. Strategic Command