The US Navy is looking at recapitalising its airborne command and control fleet, which could produce a joint venture with the US Air Force.

The Navy’s E6-B aircraft supports the service’s ballistic missile submarines and allows the USAF to launch missiles from the air should command centres on the ground become inoperable during a nuclear crisis. During an 8 March Congressional hearing, the head of US Strategic Command told lawmakers he directed the Navy to examine the E-6B’s replacement. The service is analysing options, including the possibility of leveraging a common platform with the USAF.

The Navy last refreshed the E-6B Mercury in 2002, when Boeing upgraded the 707s with a new flight deck, broadband communications system and battle management, command and control equipment, FlightGlobal reported. Boeing completed retrofits on all 16 aircraft in 2003. That extends the fleet well into the 2030s, but the Navy must attack the recapitalisation now, US Strategic Command head Gen John Hyten says.

“We’re only 20 years from 2038, but if you’re going to build large aircraft with huge command and control you need to start thinking about those things right now,” he told reporters. “That’s what the Navy is starting to do, I’ve requested that they start looking at defining what comes next.”

The E-6B, which is equipped with an airborne launch control system, can fulfill the legacy E-6A’s ballistic submarine mission or the airborne strategic command post mission. The Navy is considering whether separate aircraft should fulfill those missions or a common aircraft that can complete both, Hyten says.

A joint USAF and Navy programme could piggyback off of the air force’s ongoing command and control recapitalisations. The Northrop Grumman E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System and Boeing E-3 airborne warning and control system (AWACS), both 707-derived aircraft, are undergoing a protracted replacement. The OC-135B Open Skies aircraft, another close cousin of Boeing’s 707 manufactured in 1962, is experiencing sustainment issues. Subsystem failures aside, the USAF expects to phase out the OC-135 around 2040. Last month, the USAF released a request for information seeking viable options for the Open Skies Treaty aircraft.

The E-6B’s 2038 replacement timeline could align with those other 707 aircraft, according to Admiral Bill Moran, vice chief of Naval Operations.

“We should look at doing this together because the requirements on the air force side, the size and shape of the airplane, the capacity, the endurance are very similar missions,” he says. “We’re always looking for places where we can not be duplicative.”