Last Night We Heard What It Sounds Like Just Before A B-52 Begins The End Of The World

Late last night, a nuclear bomber exercise was underway off both of America’s seaboards. B-52Hs, B-2As, and E-6Bs headed out into the darkness to practice the apocalypse—a highly necessary training event in an era of great power competition (using the Pentagon’s own terminology). The exercise also acts as a glaring reminder to America’s enemies that its bombers are ready and able to deliver thermonuclear warheads around the globe. 

One of these flights, aptly titled DOOM 61, was orbiting out over the Pacific Ocean, off the Oregon and Washington coast. A radio and Boeing aircraft enthusiast was listening and recording its unencrypted communications, which included the read-back of a long alphanumeric Emergency Action Message code. You can listen to this audio here and linked in the tweet below. 

Emergency Action Messages, or EAMs for short, are a cornerstone of America’s nuclear command and control architecture. They direct nuclear forces to initiate pre-planned major and limited attack options. In popular culture, you may remember EAMs when they served as a major plot piece in the 1990s submarine blockbuster Crimson Tide.

Probably the best display of these types of communications was in the awesome docu-film First Strike from the late 1970s You can fast forward to 5:30 and play from there, but the whole thing is really a must watch: 

EAMs can be broadcast via a number of radio bands. E-6B Mercury and E-4B Nightwatch strategic command and control aircraft have a battery of communications systems to connect with their nuclear forces, including everything from secure microwave satellite links to reeling out their miles long very-low-frequency antennas and cranking the aircraft into a pylon turn to align them vertically. This is a common method for contacting submarines deep below the waves. 

EAMs, and how they are conveyed, is all just part of the immense support infrastructure that has been built up at the cost of trillions of dollars since the advent of nuclear weapons. Elements of this massive apparatus range from elite underground bunkers for continuity of government operations, to making sure the best communications technology is available in the air, on the ground, at sea, and in space to reliably carry out a nuclear attack order should it ever come. 

A B-52H crew in action., USAF

Without a proven and well exercised strategic command and control infrastructure in place, even a sprawling nuclear deterrent holds little value. In other words, in order for that deterrent to work, enemies need to know that the command and control infrastructure that controls the arsenal is totally reliable and can act with sudden efficiency. Hence the display of force and the radio transmissions from last evening.

And this wasn’t that large of a drill, we have certainly seen far larger ones in recent months. But considering a single B-52H can let loose 20 nuclear-tipped AGM-86B cruise missiles, the size of the airborne force versus its destructive power is really a relative concept that’s tough to get your head around. 

If a real nuclear attack order had been given to an armed B-52 what would come next is a fairly straightforward process. Canadian news outlet CBC detailed exactly this in an interesting piece on the BUFF: 

“If the B-52 crews are ever sent on a mission with atomic weapons aboard and told that “This is not a drill…,” the final step before nuclear annihilation is disconcertingly simple. One switch unlocks a nuclear missile, a button releases it.

However, there are fail-safes. In addition to the rare step of arming a plane with nuclear weapons in the first place, special codes must be loaded before the aircraft leaves the ground.

Once the target is in sight, every crew member onboard must press a “consent” button. If just one person doesn’t, the weapon won’t be launched.”

And that, my friends, is how the B-52 can end the world as we know it. 

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Tyler Rogoway


Tyler’s passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.