Primary Role: Airborne Command Post (ABCP)
In the early days of KC-135A production, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) identified the requirement for an Airborne Command Post (ABCP). The idea was for specially-equipped aircraft to be airborne at all times, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, in the event that SAC’s underground command center was destroyed or became disabled.
The first aircraft adapted for the ABCP role were 17 TF33-engined KC-135B tankers. Dubbed the “Looking Glass”, because the mission mirrored ground-based command, control, and communications, operations began on 3 February 1961. By 1964, the aircraft were considered dedicated to the role of ABCP and received the revised designation of EC-135.
The EC-135 fleet was equipped with comprehensive, high-tech communications equipment, which allows the airborne commander to link with national command authorities, theatre forces, other airborne command posts and with his assets on the ground. Its highly-trained crew and staff ensure there is always an aircraft ready to direct bombers and missiles from the air should ground-based command centers become inoperable. The crew consists of two pilots, a navigator, an airborne refueling systems operator, and several communications systems operators.
For 29 years, the EC-135s conducted continuous airborne operations, accumulating more than 281,000 accident-free flying hours an aviation phenomenon. On 24 July 1990, “Looking Glass” aircraft ceased continuous airborne alert, but remained on ground or airborne alert 24 hours a day.
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, has undergone a change of “platform.”
On 25 September 1998, the Air Force officially handed 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” (TACAMO) aircraft. 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.
The EC-135 performed the flying command post mission for a total of 37 years, serving as a survivable, nuclear response airborne platform. All EC-135s have been retired to the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC) at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, in Arizona.