Here’s How to Track the Pentagon’s Airborne Command Posts Over the Internet
This non-descript plane could be key to U.S. war against Assad — and a warning when strikes are imminent
There might be the way to spot a Syria strike before it happens — by tracking the location of the Navy’s command and control planes using the Internet.
Meet the E-6 Mercury. The 150-foot-long aircraft, which resembles a Boeing 707 painted porcelain white, is one of the most important aircraft used by the U.S. military. The 16 E-6s in service not only serve as command and control centers for the Pentagon’s strategic nuclear forces, but there’s also a good chance the birds may be used in a Syria war: relaying orders to cruise-missile submarines and destroyers in the Mediterranean while acting as flying command stations for long-range bomber strikes launched from around the world.
The E-6, curiously enough, also carries automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast technology, or ADS-B, making it one of the few military planes to broadcast its signal over public radio channels. This means you can track the planes while they’re in the air.
Go to any number of free air traffic mapping services, like FlightRadar24, and watch them buzz around live. Hint: Search for active planes, hit CTRL-F or Command-F and type the callsign “GOTO FMS.” (Or “GOTOFMS.”) Watch them now, and you might see E-6s patrolling above North America. (You might also have to try searching Planefinder.net.)
This is normal. For one, the E-6 is one of the Pentagon’s doomsday planes. In case of a nuclear war, asteroid impact or something similarly catastrophic, the E-6 serves as a backup station that can relay sensitive messages back and forth between the Pentagon to warships and strike aircraft.
But were the U.S. to begin launching cruise missiles against Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad — responsible for the worst chemical attacks since the 1988 Halabja massacre — then it’s possible an E-6 or two appearing above Europe and heading toward the Mediterranean could be a sign strikes are about to begin. An E-6 doesn’t need to be too close to the action, but it needs (it’s believed) to be close enough to geostationary satellites used to relay communications to U.S. forces in the strike area.
The planes are also able to communicate on just about every radio frequency known to humanity, on commercial satellites and on the Internet. Total operating range: about 5,500 miles.
U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the E-6 fleet, no longer keep the planes flying 24-7 absolutely all the time like during the Cold War (when the E-6’s job was filled by the older EC-135s), but there’s always at least one of the birds on alert, and usually flying in shifts of 12 hours with another one on the ground ready to go with a five-minute warning.
Turns out, the E-6's bigger brother, the jumbo jet-sized E-4, was spotted at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey on Tuesday. Incirlik is a Turkish air force base close to the Syrian border which also houses a small U.S. Air Force contingent. The E-4 sitting on the runway at Incirlik is one of the mere four E-4's in service with the Air Force. Turkey, for its part, backs an intervention against Assad.
But this begs the question: why does the E-6 broadcast its position over public channels and therefore give away its position? The answer is pretty mundane.
In order to fly as part of general air traffic, which is regulated using pre-determined routes so planes can fly safely, the E-6 has to be equipped with ADS-B capable transponders. Military flights with unpredictable flight paths, on the other hand, don’t need them — that would be during combat when civilian flights would be ordered out of the area.
Since an E-6 helping out warships in the Mediterranean could be flying around as far away as Spain or Germany, the pilot is way too far away to be worried about being attacked by Syrian MiGs. Keep your eyes peeled.
David Cenciotti provided the material for this article. Subscribe to War is Boring: medium.com/feed/war-is-boring.