U.S. president Donald Trump tested positive for the novel coronavirus on Friday morning. Shortly before the news broke, the U.S. Navy’s doomsday planes launched on both American coasts.
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The E-6B Mercury is one of the Pentagon’s airborne nuclear command posts. The four-engine planes—derivatives of the Boeing 707 airliner—carry special communication systems and crews for commanding the Navy’s Ohio-class nuclear ballistic-missile submarines.
The Navy has 16 Mercuries. One often is in the air, and it’s not unheard-of for two to be airborne at the same time. But the timing of Friday’s twin sorties seems noteworthy.
In an atomic war, the E-6s would relay directions to the Ohio boomers, helping the boats’ crews to target enemy cities and military bases with nuclear-tipped Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or SLBMs.
It could be no accident that E-6s were airborne over both coasts in the minutes before Trump’s announcement that he was infected. “I would expect them to pop up if he tests positive,” tweeted Tim Hogan, an American open-source intelligence practitioner.
Another open-source intel expert, Canadian Steffan Watkins, disagreed. “Tim doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and there is nothing unusual about any E-6 movements [Friday],” Watkins tweeted.
Hans Kristensen, a nuclear expert with the Federation of American Scientists, pointed out that U.S. Strategic Command had planned a major exercise for October that could explain the double E-6 missions.
The purpose of the Mercury flights might be in dispute, but precautions the president could have taken to guard against the novel-coronavirus—and thus avoid the controversy—are not. Wearing a mask and avoiding close contact with people are the best ways of preventing infection.
Trump has eschewed both. On Tuesday the 74-year-old president mocked Joe Biden, his 77-year-old Democratic rival in the current election, for taking precautions. “I don’t wear masks like him,” Trump said. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask.”
Hogan tracked the E-6s on public software that registers airplanes’ radio transponders. Military planes often switch off their transponders in order to avoid being tracked. If a military jet’s transponders are on, it’s because their crews want to be seen.
In the case of the E-6s, “it’s a message to the small group of adversaries with SLBMs and ICBMs,” Hogan noted. The Pentagon could want atomic-armed rivals of the United States—Russia, China and North Korea—to know that America’s nuclear command system is intact, even if the commander-in-chief might be sick.
The Pentagon for one played it cool. “There’s been no change to our alert levels,” a military spokesperson told Politico reporter Lara Seligman. “The U.S. military stands ready to defend our country and its citizens. There’s no change to the readiness or capability of our armed forces.”
Many people catch the novel coronavirus but never suffer adverse effects or even show symptoms. While Trump has said he’s infected, it’s unclear whether he’s actually sick. “Rest assured I expect the president to continue carrying out his duties while recovering,” stated Sean Conley, Trump’s official physician.
This story is being regularly updated.