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What is the Doomsday Plane and why is it in operation?

The United States' Doomsday Plane has been spotted on a training mission since President Putin announced he was placing Russia's nuclear forces on 'special alert'.

What is the Doomsday Plane and why is it in operation?

When the US B-29 bomber the Enola Gay used the first nuclear weapon on 6 August 1945, dropping the ‘Little Boy’ on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, humanity entered a new era. One in which countries worldwide wanted to have a nuclear threat in their arsenal.

Since then, two things have become clear. Firstly, that it’s very unlikely we’ll see a Third World War. And secondly, that if a global conflict did break out, nuclear arms would make it the shortest and most destructive in history. A “war at the speed of light”, as Michael Crichton described it in his novel Congo. A war in which the use of nuclear weapons a thousand times stronger than the two atomic bombs dropped in WWII would reduce the world to rubble.

The threat of a nuclear apocalypse

The subject of a host of official treaties and all manner of speculative films, series, books and video games, a potential nuclear apocalypse drives the same terror into people’s hearts now as it did when the world held its breath during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s. (It wasn’t until years later that we learned quite how close we came in that 13-day period to experiencing the post-apocalyptic world witnessed in the first two Terminator films.)

When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, ‘Third World War’ was one of the first hashtags that appeared on Twitter, sowing fear throughout a planet where several generations of people have never lived through a global conflict. And with so many countries now in possession of nuclear weapons - eight have confirmed their atomic capabilities - the reality is that President Putin could spark such a war were he to make use of Russia’s nuclear ‘deterrent’, the horrendously ironic word traditionally used to define these types of arms.

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US 'Doomsday Plane' seen reportedly doing training missions

On 27 February, the Russian leader revealed he was placing his country's nuclear forces on ‘special alert' - a move UN Secretary General António Guterres described as a "chilling development". Since the announcement, the US’ ‘Doomsday Plane’ has been spotted taking to the air.

Since the 1970s, the US government has maintained a fleet of Boeing 747 E-4B planes designed to provide an airborne command post for the US secretary of defence and high-ranking military personnel in the event of a nuclear war. The aircraft, which can remain in the air for days, is able to withstand the electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear explosion.

At least one of these planes, which cost around $200m each and are dubbed ‘GORDO’ by the US Air Force, is kept on standby 24 hours a day. Two weeks ago, in the wake of Putin’s raising of Russia's nuclear alert, a Boeing 747 E-4B with the call sign ‘GORDO15’ took off from an Air Force base in Nebraska, reportedly completing a training mission.

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The Doomsday Plane’s overnight flight on 28 February and 1 March, which lasted four hours and a half, taking it towards Chicago and back, was unusual, as it was accompanied by other command and control planes with specialised early-warning technology used to track ballistic missiles. Early on 1 March, flight-tracking websites claimed that GORDO15 was preparing for a second flight.

Doomsday Plane's flight not a response to Putin - US Air Force

On 2 March, the US Air Force insisted that Monday’s flight had been “routine” and was not in reaction to President Putin’s announcement. A USAF spokesperson told the UK’s i newspaper: “The E-4B conducts both operational and training missions, which require travel to a wide variety of locations, both within the United States and across the globe. The flight on February 28 was a routine sortie and was not a response to actions taking place elsewhere in the world.”


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