Navy strategic communications aircraft transformed for tactical role over Iraq
By RICHARD R. BURGESS, Managing Editor
Old Plane, New Role
AU.S. Navy E-6B Mercury strategic communications aircraft, a critical survivable link in the
communications integrity of U.S. nuclear
deterrent forces, has been deployed to the Persian Gulf
region to serve as an airborne tactical communications
relay for ground forces in Iraq.
In August, one of the Navy’s 16 E-6Bs flew the aircraft’s first missions over Iraq, inaugurating the tactical
communications relay role for the aircraft, a derivative
of the Boeing 707 airliner design. The aircraft, an
asset of Commander Task Force 124, deployed with a
detachment of 40 personnel from Tinker Air Force
Base, Okla., home of the Navy’s Strategic Communications Wing One and its two E-6B squadrons, VQ- 3
and VQ- 4.
The Mercury orbits daily at high altitudes over Iraq,
serving as a de facto satellite available to relay line-of-sight radio communications between convoys and
their reporting authorities in and around Baghdad,
according to releases from the Air Force’s 379th Air
Expeditionary Wing. Two crews alternate flying the
single aircraft deployed to the region.
The plane typically flies 12- to 14-hour missions and
alternates relay missions with Air Force EC-130 Hercules
aircraft based inside Iraq to give
During typical missions, the
Mercury crews use laptop computers and radios to handle convoy
location and destination information, medical evacuation requests
and disabled vehicle recovery
requests. The communication relays allow medical treatment personnel to more adequately prepare
for arriving casualties, according to
the Air Force release.
The missions over Iraq offer the
E-6B crews a role in the war on
terrorism far different from that
of maintaining communications among the Navy’s
ballistic-missile submarines patrolling the oceans during the Cold War.
The term for the E-6B’s role is TACAMO, an acronym for Take Charge and Move Out, a concept from the
1960s used initially with C-130G and later EC-130Q
TACAMO aircraft fly orbits while trailing 25,000-foot
wire antennas designed to transmit very-low frequency
radio signals that can penetrate the ocean and be received
by wire antennas trailed by submerged submarines.
A radio signal transmitted from a short wire antenna on the aircraft is amplified by the aircraft’s long wire
antenna. The aircraft relay signals — including launch
commands — from the national command authorities
to the submarines.
During 1997-1998, the Mercury fleet also assumed
the role of U.S. Strategic Command’s airborne communications relay for its land-based intercontinental ballistic-missile force.
The original E-6As were modified into E-6Bs with
battle-staff command centers and succeeded the Air
Force’s older EC-135 Looking Glass aircraft, which
The E-6B Mercury sees action in the Persian Gulf as a vital link
between convoys and their support systems in Iraq.
■ Since the Cold War, the aircraft maintained communications with
ballistic-missile submarines on patrol.
■ Two crews alternate flying the one updated aircraft deployed
to the Gulf.
■ Laptop computers and radios handle convoy location and destination information, medical evacuation requests and disabled
vehicle recovery requests.