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Introducing the E-6B Mercury: America's last line of defense

The joint Air Force and Navy crew of an E-6B Mercury Airborne Launch Control System aircraft, stationed with the 625th Strategic Operations Squadron based out of Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., pose for a picture on the tarmac of the Montana Air National Guard flight line in Great Falls, Mont., April 5, 2016. The Mercury crew serves as a last line of defense and redundancy program for the nation’s nuclear command and control, and has the capability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile from any launch facility in the nuclear triad. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman Collin Schmidt)

The joint Air Force and Navy crew of an E-6B Mercury Airborne Launch Control System aircraft, stationed with the 625th Strategic Operations Squadron based out of Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., pose for a picture on the tarmac of the Montana Air National Guard flight line in Great Falls, Mont., April 5, 2016. The Mercury crew serves as a last line of defense and redundancy program for the nation’s nuclear command and control, and has the capability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile from any launch facility in the nuclear triad. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman Collin Schmidt)

MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. -- The Navy's E-6B Mercury Airborne Launch Control System aircraft, while menacing in stature, serves its mission strictly as America's absolute last line of defense in the face of nuclear war and as a nuclear deterrence and communication platform.

Recently, personnel from Malmstrom Air Force Base had the chance to see first-hand how the plane's mission correlates directly to the mission of the wing during a visit by crew, stationed with the 625th Strategic Operations Squadron based out of Offutt AFB, Nebraska.

An extremely important aircraft in the nation's military, the Mercury is used to relay information to submarines, send commands to the nuclear triad via an Airborne Launch Control System, and perform critical command and control communications support to friendly forces operating in an active theater.

"I manage a communications system and personnel on an aircraft that's responsible for maintaining survivable and reliable communications in the event of full-blown nuclear war," said Lt. Mony Murphy, combat systems officer and mission commander.

"This mission is very unique," she continued. "We are part of a redundancy program for our nuclear command and control to provide a means of communications in the event we lose all of our landline infrastructures. We are the backup and we accomplish that mission by sending out very low frequency messages and reliable launch commands in the event of other systems' failure."

To accomplish the task of sending out reliable communications, the E-6B Mercury trails dual wire antennas while performing a continuous orbit maneuver. The antennas are connected to drag chutes, which when trailed during a specific flying pattern provide low frequency connectivity to ensure immediate launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile from any designated launch facility.

"In reality, there are four very distinct mission sets that the crew aboard this plane perform," said Maj. Aaron Linton, 625th STOS director of operations and airborne deputy missile combat crew commander.

"The first mission set is the ALCS, which is primarily responsible for airborne launch and control of all the ICBMs in the Air Force arsenal," he continued. "These personnel could functionally run nuclear operations from their station on this plane."

The second mission is the test and analysis branch whose responsibility is running all ICBM and ALCS related tests. They participate in the ground based simulated electronic launch-Minuteman tests for the missile wings, operational test launches out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and also run "giant ball" tests, radio tests to ensure the aircraft has good communication with every launch control center on the ground.

The Strategic Automated Command and Control system makes up the third mission set of the Mercury crew. It allows rapid transmission of emergency action messages to all nuclear forces. They are also the hub for all software and systems sustainment on the aircraft.

The fourth and final mission set is plans and targeting. These mission members are the liaisons between the Unites States Strategic Command's targeting organizations for its war plan relating to the deployed ICBMs, and work out transmitting targeting information to the missile fields so missileers in each missile wing can target their ICBMs.

All together, the components and team members on this airframe create what E-6B Mercury crews and aviators from around the military refer to as the deadliest plane in the sky.

According to the visiting Mercury crew, even with the aircraft's capabilities, they say the team is what makes the mission successful.

"What I really like about this mission is the people," said Linton. "We have absolute top-tier folks in every one of our mission sets. I find the mission itself utterly fascinating and to see what these guys are capable of is incredible."

"For a typical mission we will have about 14 Navy crew members and six Airmen," said Capt. Izzy Remo, mission test and analysis flight commander. "The amazing thing about this mission is that we're flying in a Navy jet that performs a STRATCOM mission, that has an Air Force weapons system on board, and is operated by missileers. It can be kind of hard to wrap your head around that, but that's what makes this a unique opportunity for us as crewmembers and brings us together.

"If I could relay to people one thing about us, it would be that we are one team, one fight," he continued. "Even though we come from different branches of service, we are here for a common goal which is keeping our families safe from harm. My family motivates me every day to accomplish this mission. It's an honor to serve and to be a part of the nuclear enterprise in this capacity is very special to me."
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