High-alert fleet grounded as nuclear threat eases

April 07, 1991|By Barbara Starr | Barbara Starr,Jane's Defense Weekly

It sounds like a "Dr. Strangelove"-type movie.

A massive nuclear strike is launched against the United States by the Soviet Union.

The president transmits an order for a retaliatory nuclear strike.

His order is relayed from a giant Boeing 747 aircraft, the U.S. Air Force's E-4 U.S. National Command authority, also known as the flying White House.

The order is received by one of 30 TACAMO -- for Take Charge And Move Out -- aircraft.

These planes slowly circle the sky. They carry no weapons but are equipped with electronic generators able to blast a very low frequency signal down to the ocean through 5-mile-long wire antennae.

Within seconds, a Trident ballistic missile submarine on 24-hour ocean patrol picks up the signal and launches a wave of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles at the Soviet Union.

The system is designed to work even in the most desperate circumstances. But as of February, it was quietly and significantly changed.

The TACAMO planes are now on "strip alert." That means the planes, which used to be in the air 24 hours a day, are on the ground, and the crews must be ready to fly at short notice.

According to one analyst, the TACAMO planes on ground alert serve "to keep the threat alive."

The move to strip alert, says Vice Adm. Roger Bacon, assistant chief of naval operations for undersea warfare, is "due to decreased tensions and increased warning time of conflict, and to save aircraft operating and maintenance costs and reduce personnel."

The change is temporary, Admiral Bacon says, pending a review by the secretary of defense.

Ironically, the TACAMO fleet was in the process of being upgraded.

Sixteen Boeing E-6As are replacing 22 Lockheed EC-130Qs. The E-6As are more powerful and quicker to get into the air. Hercules C-130 transports complete the unit.

The fleet has been operated by two Navy squadrons at air bases in Patuxent River, Md., to link with Trident subs prowling the Atlantic Ocean, and in Barbers Point, Hawaii, to link with subs in the Pacific.

But the speedy airborne capacity of the Boeing E-6As had made it possible to base TACAMO at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma after June 1992.

The Cold War-era airborne alert system seems less vital now than the Third World threat -- in which, according to Adm. T. A. Brooks, director of naval intelligence, at least 40 nations are seeking "low observable" weapons technologies such as materials that absorb radar waves.

For example, in Sweden, the world's first "stealth" warship, the Smyge, is attracting international attention. While the Royal Swedish Navy's experimental Smyge, launched at Karlskrona in southern Sweden, is in no sense a "ghost" warship, its designers intend it to be invisible to radar.

Or, in the dry language of the naval architect, Smyge is described as having "low radar, magnetic and acoustic signatures."

The 140-ton vessel is designed to be super-quiet and to be immune to magnetically triggered mines.

"Smyge" is the Swedish word for stealth, an expression generally associated with the Lockheed F-117A Stealth fighter planes and the Northrop B-2 flying wing bomber.

The ship can be fitted with a wide range of weapons, including a 40mm gun, two anti-aircraft missiles, anti-submarine equipment, mine countermeasures systems and mines.

Arms and other equipment are stored below deck under removable hatches, except for a 40mm gun covered by a stealth canopy.

The hull, angled to deflect radar waves, is constructed in fiberglass-reinforced plastic and Kevlar that can insulate heat emissions from enemy sensors.

All the ship's antennae are blended into the hull or are completely retractable.

Two diesel engines lift the ship until the hulls just skim the water. Two more diesel engines and a water-jet propulsion system provide a quiet forward movement and let the ship operate in the shallowest waters.

Even the exhaust pipes are fitted with three different types of special baffles to mask the heat of the engines from heat-seeking missiles.

Tests are scheduled to continue until 1993 to see how the ship holds up in winter and how well the speed of 40 to 50 knots holds up in rough seas.

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