America's doomsday planes are in the air following news that the nation's commander-in-chief, President Donald Trump, has Covid-19.
Two US Navy E-6B Mercury nuclear war command posts were observed in flight Friday, one on each coast of the United States. They were initiating the "Take Charge and Move Out" (TACAMO) defence protocol – essentially dispersing the command and communications facilities needed to control the US nuclear arsenal.
These aircraft are activated by the Pentagon when it is deemed necessary to communicate with the US Navy's secretive nuclear missile submarines, stealth bombers and missile silos.
The move underscores the potential severity of the situation.
The President of the United States is also the commander-in-chief of the nation's armed forces, including its nuclear forces. The incapacitation of whoever holds this position could be seen as an opportunity by potential belligerents.
Covid-19, which has so far killed 200,000 US citizens, is particularly deadly among older sufferers. President Trump is 74 years old.
It was announced this morning that he is already experiencing "mild symptoms".
The two E-6Bs appeared on flight tracking systems 30 minutes before Trump announced his condition.
It's no accident the aircraft were seen.
Military aircraft and ships usually fly with their radio identification transponders turned off in order to avoid being tracked and identified.
If it is on, it's because the aircraft wants to be seen.
In being seen, the US Pentagon is sending a subtle – but clear – message that it is prepared for any eventuality.
Based on Boeing 707 airliner airframes, the E-6B aircraft have been built to be particularly resistant to electronic warfare and the electromagnetic-pulse generated by nuclear bursts.
About 16 of the aircraft were delivered from 1986. The fleet underwent a major upgrade in 2006.
Their job is to get into the air in the time of crisis. But an unknown number is also maintained aloft at any one time.
In the event of war, their job is to relay commands from the president and defense secretary directly to the deterrent nuclear force. The heart of this force are the Ohio-class nuclear ballistic-missile submarines hiding deep in the world's oceans. Their immense payloads of nuclear missiles constantly threaten the prospect of a devastating retaliatory blow.
"I would expect them to pop up if he tests positive," US open-source intelligence hobbyist Tim Hogan tweeted with flight tracking maps identifying the flights.
"It's the plane that has the ability to order the killing of everyone on earth if someone attacks the US with nukes in a first strike. It can talk to our missile subs under water even if DC is gone."
Talking to submarines deep underwater is no easy task.
Very Low Frequency (VLF) radio can reach about 20m beneath the ocean's surface. But its transmission speed is very slow and require large, high powered emitters for broadcast. In order to operate this equipment, the E-6B must unspool a kilometres-long wire to act as an aerial.
Command and Control
The US Constitution deals with the prospect of a president who is physically or mentally unable to discharge his duties. The role "shall devolve on the vice president", it states.
What it doesn't make clear is how the judgement to "devolve" should be made, or by whom.
The 25th Amendment, enacted in 1967, is supposed to provide a framework for this decision. But it was not initiated in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan was shot. For 10 days Reagan lay near death. But his key powers were not transferred to Vice President George H. W. Bush.
This has raised further questions about how presidential powers would be divested in an emergency. The 25th Amendment calls for a signed statement from the serving President, or if "the vice president and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide" a similar statement.
Congress and vice presidents, however, may be hesitant to act out of fear of being accused of attempting to seize power.
The resulting power vacuum, especially in the role of US Commander-in-Chief, potentially poses a strategic risk in times of international – and internal – crisis.