Air Force Awards $13B for New Fleet of ‘Doomsday Planes’

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By Staff
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When it came time to replace its aging fleet of Boeing E-4B Nightwatch aircraft, or “Doomsday Planes” as they’re often called, the Air Force skipped over the manufacturer and went with a different defense contractor.

The service recently announced that Sierra Nevada, a 60-year-old aerospace company based in Nevada, would receive a $13 billion contract that runs through July 2036. The Nightwatch, which is a militarized version of a Boeing 747-200, is a four-engine aircraft that’s capable of refueling in flight. According to the Air Force, in case of national emergency or destruction of ground command and control centers, the aircraft provides a highly survivable command, control and communications center to direct U.S. forces, execute emergency war orders, and coordinate actions by civil authorities.

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It’s a major contract win for Sierra Nevada, which is smaller than several of its competitors. But it’s a project that the company has been preparing for recently. According to Aviation Week, Sierra Nevada last year opened a 90,000-square-foot maintenance, repair and overhaul hangar. It’s just one of four the company has planned and it will be accompanied by a 120,000-square-foot paint facility.

Sierra Nevada’s strategy worked and it won the contract for the Survivable Airborne Operations Center (SAOC), which will include about 8-10 planes. But as the report points out, the new fleet may actually grow beyond that number since the Air Force is being pressured to bring back a program that keeps nuclear command posts in the air at all times.

Boeing confirmed to Reuters in December that it had been taken out of consideration for the SAOC program. However, its planes may still be involved. The Boeing 747 is still the top candidate for replacing the current fleet of Nightwatch aircraft and if that’s the case, then Sierra Nevada will be in the market for some lightly used 747’s that it can upgrade.

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