WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon has halted round-the-clock fTC flights of planes that serve as the key wartime link between the president and the U.S. nuclear submarine fleet because the Navy lacks the money to keep them flying, defense officials said yesterday.
More important, the grounding of the Navy's TACAMO planes after about 30 years of flying is further evidence that the military believes there is next to no chance of a Soviet surprise nuclear attack on the United States, Pentagon officials said.
"The planes are now on standby for budgetary reasons," Pentagon spokeswoman Susan Hansen said, and are ready to take off on short notice if needed. "The Navy ran out of money in their operations and maintenance account to keep them flying."
The planes will conduct "random flights" while on alert to help keep their crews proficient, Navy Lt. Fred Henney said.
Pentagon confirmation of the grounding comes nearly a year after the Air Force announced it would no longer keep its "Looking Glass" airborne nuclear command post flying 24 hours a day. Unlike the Air Force, the Navy didn't specify when its 24-hour coverage ended, saying only that it occurred earlier this year.
Since the early 1960s, at least two TACAMO planes had been in the air at all times: one over the Atlantic Ocean, the other over the Pa
cific. The Navy has a fleet of about 15 of the planes.
During a standard two-week deployment, a TACAMO plane -- painted glossy white to reflect the flash of a nuclear blast -- flew 11-hour missions.
In the event of nuclear war, the president would need those planes -- TACAMO stands for "Take Charge and Move Out" -- to order the nuclear-tipped missiles aboard the nation's submarines launched toward the Soviet Union.
The president would relay the launch order to the planes, most likely from his own airborne command post, a modified Boeing 747 known as the E-4B Doomsday plane. A TACAMO plane, which dangles a five-mile-long antenna into the ocean from the rear of its fuselage and flies in a tight circle to keep the antenna vertical, would relay the order to the subs.
The system uses very low radio frequencies that can penetrate seawater, permitting the president to communicate with the submarines without forcing them to surface and betray their presence.
Since the grounding, the planes and their nine-member crews are on alert at unspecified airfields near the two oceans. They would take off only if U.S. reconnaissance and sensors detected Soviet submarines within striking distance of the airfields, defense officials said. In recent years, the Soviets have cut the number of their submarines sailing near the United States.