CNN goes on board the 'doomsday' plane

CNN's Barbara Starr gets an exclusive look at an escape plan in place if America's nuclear command center is ever targeted.

Posted: Apr 4, 2018 9:08 AM
Updated: Apr 4, 2018 9:13 AM

If Russia aimed a long range missile like the "Satan 2" it just tested or North Korea suddenly targeted the headquarters of the US nuclear arsenal, top commanders would have a small window to get to safety.

But the US is ready for such a scenario and the four-star general tasked with executing the US response to a nuclear strike would take to the air within minutes. He'd be able to carry out the President's orders and launch a nuclear attack in response from the safety of a specially equipped jet, known as the "Doomsday" plane.

"I have a certain amount of minutes to get on that plane and for that plane to get off and to a safe distance before a nuclear weapon went off here," John Hyten, the head of US Strategic Command, told CNN in an exclusive interview earlier this month from his headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base in eastern Nebraska.

At the base a countdown clock is always visible to Hyten telling him how many minutes away an incoming missile would be from impact, as well as how much time he has to be rushed from his underground battle deck to the surface and a vehicle that would whisk him to a nearby tarmac where the all-important plane would be waiting.

"The roads will open up on this base and I'll go beeline straight for the runway," Hyten said.

The aircraft, a Navy E-6B which has the airframe of a Boeing 707, operates as a full command and control facility in the air where Hyten, or one of his senior officers can carry out the President's orders if this part of Nebraska comes under attack.

"I look at this jet and the whole nuclear enterprise really as this is America's insurance policy," Brigadier Gen. Gregory Bowen, deputy director of global operations at Strategic Command, told CNN during a tour on board the plane. "This ensures our survival as a nation if you will."

With a small Navy flight crew, the command deck on the plane, while much smaller than the Global Operations Center on base, has the ability to operate in just the same way from the air.

"We know on this jet where the President is, all the presidential successors, the chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], the secretary of defense, everybody that is important we track their location," Bowen said.

In addition to a nuclear strike adviser, there is also a meteorological adviser on board constantly studying current weather patterns around the world to understand where any nuclear fallout is drifting so that US bombers can be notified.

The plane, which can be refueled in the air allowing it to remain in flight for days, also has antennas that can communicate with US submarines and transmit orders and messages to them without having to land.

And perhaps most importantly, the plane also has a control panel that can launch US intercontinental ballistic missiles if the worst case scenario is playing out on the ground.

"If they were struck and all of the people down in the launch control centers were dead or unable to communicate, we can actually directly talk to the missile silos with this gear and launch the missiles ourselves," Bowen said.

During the Cold War, the plane was in the air almost 24/7 just in case an unforeseen nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union happened. With today's threat from North Korea, Russia and elsewhere, the plane is still regularly airborne to train for any possibility.

But despite the frequency of the exercises what the plane and the overall mission of Strategic Command represents has never become routine to Hyten, who is well aware of the gravity of what's at stake.

"The first time I did it we set off on the runway and we take off, and I look down and there's my house," Hyten said. "And then I realized there's my wife and I'm now in a safe place, but if this was the real world that would be the last time I ever saw her."

But the plane's unique ability to execute a nuclear war from thousands of feet above the ground sends a strong message to hostile nations.

"We have to make sure that we as the United States have the capability and we show the capability to our potential adversaries that should they decide they want to strike us, the cost of doing that is going to be unbearable," Bowen said.

In the end, the plane and the entire US nuclear missile program are about keeping threatening behavior at bay before it boils over.

"That's part of what this jet does, it is deterrence in its simplest form," Bowen said. "If you shoot at us, your country is going to go away. It's that simple."

Terre Haute
Few Clouds
90° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 96°
Robinson
Scattered Clouds
88° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 94°
Indianapolis
Broken Clouds
91° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 72°
Feels Like: 94°
Rockville
Scattered Clouds
88° wxIcon
Hi: 93° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 91°
Casey
Clear
91° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 95°
Brazil
Few Clouds
90° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 96°
Marshall
Few Clouds
90° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 96°
Hot and humid with scattered pop-up storms this evening
WTHI Planner
WTHI Temps
WTHI Radar

Latest Video

Image

Sunday Morning Forecast Update

Image

Illinois Lottery closing claims centers temporarily

Image

Travel safely this holiday

Image

Rubber Duck Regatta winner to donate portion of prize

Image

Remembering Eva Kor a year after her death

Image

The Mile supports kids running program

Image

Conservation club dedicates new flag

Image

Demonstrators demand immigration reform

Image

Saturday Morning Forecast Update

Image

Blue Lives Matter Rally takes place in front of THPD

WTHI Events

 

Illinois Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 7 p.m. CT)

Confirmed Cases: 146612

Reported Deaths: 7014
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Cook922404622
Lake9919423
DuPage9267475
Kane7819275
Will6883320
Winnebago308496
McHenry210397
St. Clair1988137
Kankakee130465
Rock Island101829
Madison100769
Kendall98921
Champaign93912
Boone60821
DeKalb57219
Peoria55128
Sangamon44632
Jackson33619
Randolph2887
Stephenson2765
McLean27313
Ogle2694
Clinton24117
Macon23422
LaSalle22517
Union19419
Whiteside19315
Coles17217
Grundy1715
Iroquois1615
Tazewell1498
Warren1430
Knox1370
Cass1367
Morgan1303
Monroe12913
Williamson1264
Adams1131
Jefferson10617
McDonough10215
Lee1012
Henry951
Vermilion772
Pulaski760
Marion690
Perry561
Macoupin553
Douglas540
Livingston522
Montgomery481
Jasper477
Unassigned470
Christian454
Jo Daviess451
Ford371
Jersey351
Woodford352
Bureau302
Franklin280
Menard240
Fayette233
Mercer230
Alexander220
Carroll222
Mason220
Wabash220
Washington210
Johnson200
Piatt200
Hancock191
Moultrie190
Shelby191
Crawford180
Effingham171
Logan170
Bond161
Cumberland160
Clark150
Fulton150
Massac150
Wayne141
Schuyler130
De Witt110
Brown100
Edgar100
Marshall100
Greene90
Saline90
Henderson80
Lawrence70
White60
Hamilton50
Richland40
Stark40
Pike30
Clay20
Edwards20
Gallatin20
Calhoun10
Hardin10
Pope10
Putnam10
Scott10
Out of IL00

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 8 p.m. ET)

Confirmed Cases: 47432

Reported Deaths: 2687
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion11546683
Lake5104242
Elkhart321144
Allen2737129
St. Joseph190866
Cass16389
Hamilton1538100
Hendricks1390100
Johnson1256118
Porter72037
Tippecanoe6948
Madison65564
Clark64044
Bartholomew58244
Howard56557
LaPorte56326
Kosciusko5354
Vanderburgh5026
Marshall4823
Jackson4693
Noble46928
LaGrange4677
Hancock44035
Boone43743
Delaware43150
Shelby42325
Floyd37144
Morgan32731
Montgomery29320
Grant29126
Clinton2882
Monroe27628
Dubois2666
White26010
Henry25815
Decatur24932
Lawrence24225
Vigo2318
Dearborn22823
Harrison21222
Warrick21229
Greene18532
Miami1822
Jennings17411
Putnam1688
DeKalb1604
Scott1607
Daviess14216
Orange13623
Wayne1366
Steuben1282
Perry1279
Franklin1248
Ripley1157
Jasper1142
Wabash1122
Carroll1102
Fayette987
Newton9810
Starke923
Whitley905
Randolph784
Huntington742
Jefferson722
Wells711
Fulton691
Jay680
Washington681
Gibson672
Knox640
Pulaski641
Clay604
Rush563
Adams501
Benton480
Owen471
Sullivan441
Brown381
Posey380
Blackford372
Spencer371
Crawford300
Fountain302
Tipton301
Switzerland260
Martin220
Parke220
Ohio140
Vermillion140
Warren141
Union130
Pike100
Unassigned0193