There Were Doomsday Ships Ready To Ride Out Nuclear Armageddon Before There Were Doomsday Planes

Among the U.S. government’s ever-evolving plans for what to do in an all-out nuclear confrontation, some of the least known involved highly modified warships that were deployed during one of the tensest periods between the Soviet Union and the United States. Had the Cold War turned hot, the U.S. president likely would have called the shots in the ensuing nuclear exchange from one of these remarkable ‘floating White Houses.’ These fascinating vessels were in every way a part of the ancestory of today’s ‘doomsday plane’ airborne command posts.

The program was officially known as the National Emergency Command Post Afloat, or NECPA, pronounced ‘neck-pa.’ It eventually yielded two specially equipped ships, the first of which, USS Northampton, began its new mission in March 1962.

USS Northampton, in around 1959, when still equipped as a command light cruiser., U.S. Navy

The Northampton had been built as an Oregon City class heavy cruiser, four of which were commissioned soon after World War II. The Northampton was completed as a command light cruiser, CLC-1, entering service in 1953 and then serving primarily as a flagship with the Atlantic Fleet. Because of its original role, the warship already featured an extra deck for command and control spaces.

Adapted for the NECPA role, the Northampton was reclassified as the first command ship, CC-1, and was based in Norfolk, Virginia, within easy reach of Washington, D.C. Its codename was “Sea Ruler.” In times of crisis, the president and their closest aides would have been whisked by U.S. Marine Corps helicopters to the waters off the eastern seaboard, to board the Northampton. The modifications carried out to prepare the ship for its role in potential Armageddon were extensive, as Garrett M. Graff observes in his peerless book on the subject of U.S. government Doomsday plans, Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan To Save Itself — While the Rest Of Us Die:

More than forty tons of gear, including sixty transmitters and receivers, allowed it to process 3,000 messages a day (considered at the time quite a feat), and the Navy claimed the powerful communications system allowed the ship to set the world record for the fastest around-the-globe message, taking just eight-tenths of a second.

A year after the Northampton began its NECPA role, the Navy added a second ‘Floating White House’ to the fleet — USS Wright, codenamed “Zenith,” and also based at Norfolk.

This warship had been completed as a Saipan class light aircraft carrier that first entered service in 1947 before being decommissioned for the first time in 1956. Although originally earmarked for use as an auxiliary aircraft transport, Wright was instead converted at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard as the second command ship, CC-2.

Even more comprehensively equipped than the Northampton, Graff describes Wright as “the most sophisticated communications platform ever placed at sea” — as of 1963, at least. The former flight deck of the ship became increasingly dominated by aerials, the tallest being a set of 156-foot masts festooned with troposcatter antennas.

USS Wright seen in 1967 with a less cluttered deck, but with a huge communications dish.  , USN

A Navy press release soon after the ship had entered service enthused:

The Wright has the most extensive communications facilities ever put aboard a ship. Its ‘Voice of Command’ can be heard by ships, aircraft, and stations throughout the world. Wright’s command spaces have facilities for theatre-type presentations similar to command posts ashore, including projection equipment and huge motion picture screens. Overall, there are rooms for war operations, plotting, charts and graphics, emergency action, briefings, and conferences. On the antenna deck are arranged the largest, most powerful transmitting antenna systems ever installed on a naval vessel. An entire room is given to the ship’s teletype machines, each of which is capable of receiving incoming messages at the rate of 100 words per minute. The Wright is capable of handling as many messages in a day as many large shore-based communications stations.

The former hangar space below deck was now filled with operations centers, with working areas and accommodation for 200 communications specialists, part of a complement of around 1,000 crew. There was also a team of 17 officers and 22 enlisted personnel from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who would have managed the ‘Floating White House’ during an emergency. The crew could also be increased in size if required, to cope with different eventualities.

As for the president, they were provided with what Graff describes as an “elaborate, carpeted stateroom,” equipped with “nearly a dozen different color-coded telephones linked to various parts of the country’s military command structure.” The emergency operations center, which normally remained locked, featured the commander-in-chief’s desk and personnel could only enter with a security detail. In keeping with the presidential role, the Wright had three “themed” dining halls, where well-trained chefs provided the meals and a roaring log fire added to the atmosphere.

President John F. Kennedy cuts a cake during a visit aboard the USS Northampton., PUBLIC DOMAIN

With the appropriate motto Vox Imperii, or “voice of the leaders,” the Wright would have used its antenna arrays to maintain contact with three specially constructed shore facilities, which in turn would have communicated with whatever was left of the U.S. military. If those three stations were to be destroyed, or communications with them lost, the Wright could deploy an unmanned QH-43 Huskie helicopter, a unique version of the Kaman design that could lift a super very-low-frequency antenna over two miles into the air and thereby communicate with Navy submarines around the globe. In all, there was space on the deck for three helicopters to be embarked. The same principle of a trailing very low-frequency antenna is used to this day by the Navy’s E-6B Mercury aircraft

Although of poor quality, this photo of a Navy UH-2B Seaprite utility helicopter visiting USS Wright, around 1966, also seems to show the unique QH-43 Huskie drone helicopter in the background., PUBLIC DOMAIN

For operations in a nuclear environment, the Wright was equipped with special air filters so that the crew could be sealed off from fallout, while the decks would be washed down with a saltwater system.

There were also plans to convert another Saipan class carrier, the lead ship of that class to NECPA configuration, as CC-3, but these were quickly abandoned and instead, this vessel became a communications relay platform. Thought was also given to another, and even more survivable, NECPA platform, based on the nuclear-powered submarine USS Triton, but this never progressed beyond studies in the mid-1960s.

The Doomsday submarine that never was: the radar picket USS Triton seen in 1959. , U.S. Navy

The operating principle behind NECPA called for one of these two vessels to be permanently at sea, with the ships rotating duty every two weeks. In this way, at least one of the vessels was afforded more protection against a surprise attack from the Soviet Union. In such a scenario, or other times of increased superpower tensions, the president and other national leaders would be transferred to the vessel that was on duty.

In practice, the NECPA ship that was at sea would patrol around the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, generally within an area between Nova Scotia to the north and the Caribbean to the south, but usually operated within reasonable reach from Washington, D.C. During presidential trips to foreign countries, one of the NECPA vessels would frequently trail them, including on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s visit to Uruguay in 1967, and to El Salvador the following year.

A letter from President Johnson to the commander of USS Northampton, after an overnight stay in 1966., PUBLIC DOMAIN

As Graff points out, while little-known today, the NECPA ships were considered, at the time, to be the most survivable option for an evacuation of the president and their staff, prior to a nuclear strike. Indeed, the two ships seem to have been the Pentagon’s first choice for such a scenario all the way from the introduction of the Northampton in 1962 until midway through Nixon’s first term, which ran from 1969 until 1974.

USS Northampton passes a fountain decorated with a Polaris missile at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum, Norfolk, Virginia, around 1962., PUBLIC DOMAIN

It’s worth remembering that, to begin with, hardened land-based installations for “continuity of government” were considered fairly survivable, especially since the first atomic bombs were much less powerful than those deployed in the later years of the Cold War. Things changed entirely with the appearance of the first intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which provided a terrifying combination of speed (reducing warning time to 15-30 minutes) and accuracy, plus the arrival of far more destructive thermonuclear weapons with which to arm them.

In the period in which these command ships were in commission, the other available options for the evacuation of the U.S. leadership involved hardened facilities on land, which could be decimated by a direct strike using thermonuclear ICBMs, or an airborne command post like the EC-135J Night Watch, which began its mission in 1962, but which could spend only a limited amount of time in the air before it would have to land. At the same time, the growing vulnerability of existing underground facilities did lead the United States to look at building super-shielded bunkers, including the Kubrick-esque Deep Underground Command Center that you can read about in this previous War Zone article.

Former C-135 pilot and War Zone columnist Robert Hopkins explains that the EC-135J, though touted as able to stay aloft indefinitely with air refueling, would begin to run out of engine oil between 72 and 96 hours. Nuclear war planners assumed 72 hours would be the limit. Moreover, the availability of a tanker to actually refuel the jet during a full nuclear exchange must be considered doubtful. “After 48 hours, if not sooner, the crew will run out of food and water (especially) and human survivability after that becomes tedious,” Hopkins says.

EC-135J Night Watch aircraft conduct aerial refueling., PUBLIC DOMAIN

In comparison, the NECPA ships could remain in operation for weeks at sea and offered a high level of survivability. What’s more, they also offered plenty of space for the staff to manage national security and war-planning, as well as considerable redundancy in terms of communications to maintain a link along the chain of command.

Exactly how survivable the NECPA vessels would have been in an actual shooting war remains somewhat open to question. Certainly, their ability to persist through a nuclear exchange was mainly attributed to the fact that they would be expected to avoid any encounters with a Soviet Navy that was, in this period, still building up its blue-water capabilities. However, the vessels both featured some limited armament. USS Northampton initially packed four of 5-inch dual-purpose guns, but eventually kept only a single aft turret, while the Wright had an array of 40mm Bofors guns to provide anti-aircraft firepower. Some reports state that they also retained their anti-submarine warfare sensors and other support systems that would have provided them with some level of organic situational awareness.

One of the 5-inch gun turrets aboard USS Northampton as of 1962., PUBLIC DOMAIN
Seen shortly before decommissioning in 1970, USS Northampton has had its armament reduced to a single 5-inch turret at the rear, due to the requirement for more command and control spaces within an enlarged superstructure., PUBLIC DOMAIN

On the other hand, if the Soviet Navy was to track unprotected NECPA vessels, they would have potentially been easy targets for a shadowing submarine. Indeed, Graff notes that there were rumors among crews of the two ships that the U.S. Navy provided one of its own submarines as an escort while deployed at sea.

Thankfully, neither of the NECPA ships were ever used in a full-on nuclear crisis situation, but they did at least go on alert during times of particular Cold War tensions. The Northampton was placed on alert during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, while the Wright was called upon during the Pueblo Incident in 1968 when a U.S. Navy intelligence ship was attacked and captured by North Korean forces.

A U.S. Navy SP-2H Neptune flies over a Soviet cargo ship with crated Il-28 jet bombers on deck during the Cuban Crisis., U.S. Navy

Both President John F. Kennedy and Johnson spent nights aboard the NECPA vessels, during exercises, as well as during the aforementioned foreign tours. Perhaps the most significant event in these ships’ fortunes came during President Johnson’s return from Uruguay aboard the Wright in 1967. On April 17, Strategic Air Command successfully used an EC-135 aircraft to launch an unarmed Minuteman II ICBM from its silo. This was the first time that this had been achieved and was a sign that the airborne command post was the future for the Doomsday command post force.

By the end of the decade, moreover, the advent of Soviet spy satellites meant that the lumbering NECPA ships were no longer safe from prying eyes — their every movement could now potentially be tracked, putting them at the mercy of an ever more capable Soviet Navy’s surface warships, submarines, and aircraft. Even ICBMs could have been a risk. The U.S. Navy abandoned the NECPA program in around 1970 and the two ships were decommissioned the same year before eventually being sold for scrap: Northampton in 1977 and Wright in 1980.

Three stricken cruisers, from left to right, USS Newport News (CA-148), USS Springfield (CG-7), and USS Northampton (CC-1) await disposal at Philadelphia Naval Base in October 1978. , PUBLIC DOMAIN

Today, the job of these two ships is undertaken primarily by the U.S. Air Force’s fleet of four E-4B aircraft. Commonly referred to as “Doomsday Planes,” they provide a robust and survivable airborne command post that offers a platform for the President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense, via a mechanism known as the National Command Authority (NCA), to initiate a nuclear strike. Like the NECPA ships that preceded them, however, they are also equipped to support a range of other major military operations or the response to other significant contingencies, such as large-scale natural disasters. However, the E-4Bs are now old aircraft, dating back to the 1970s, and are in the early stages of being replaced by a new platform, likely also to be based on the Boeing 747 airframe

In addition, the Air Force One VC-25As also conduct part of the “continuity of government” mission and is intended to operate in the most demanding situations, including a nuclear apocalypse. Air Force One has been modernized to better maintain communication with anyone on the ground or in the air and to stay abreast of a rapidly unfolding situation. The initiative to make it a more effective command post for the President came after the experience of 9/11, when President George H. W. Bush was aboard it and communications between the aircraft and major players on the ground broke down. The replacement of these aircraft with the VC-25B has led to concern that this mission set will be compromised, at least in part, by the new aircraft’s lack of aerial refueling capability. Currently, both E-4Bs and VC-25As have this capability.

As for the aforementioned E-6B Mercury airborne strategic command aircraft, they too, continue to provide an alternate flying communications link to America’s nuclear-capable bombers, ballistic missile submarines, and ICBM silos. These aircraft, too, are scheduled for replacement.

For the time being, it seems that if nuclear Armageddon does come, the hopes are that the U.S. President will be aloft in a bespoke “Doomsday Plane,” or a VC-25. When considering the critical role of these aircraft, and their planned successors, we should not forget the pioneering part played by their seagoing ancestors.

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