Bird of Doom: The endless nuclear vigil of the Looking Glass.

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Every time I do an article involving nuclear weapons or nuclear war I’m continually amazed by the staggering amount of resources that our society has devoted to preparing for an event that every sane person insists should never and must never happen. The twisted logic of war, which grew out of World War II and the Cold War that followed it, somehow dictated that the best way to make sure a nuclear confrontation between superpowers doesn’t happen is to act as if such a conflict is inevitable, imminent and could begin at any time, for any reason or no reason. This is how we get stockpiles of ICBMs ready to launch, submarines patrolling the oceans 24 hours a day, and a somewhat misnamed “red telephone” nuclear hotline whose purpose is to prevent the destruction of the world. For something that we never want to have happen, we’ve certainly spent a lot of time and money preparing for it.

This is also how we got Operation Looking Glass, a curious institution of Cold War machinery that continues operating today. Fifty-five years ago today, on February 3, 1961, a U.S. Air Force EC-135C took off from Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska, with a crew of about 36 on board. Their mission was, quite simply, to wait for a nuclear war to break out. This airplane, called Looking Glass, was designed as a mobile airborne command headquarters which was capable of coordinating all American strategic and nuclear military assets in the event of an attack by the Soviets. The idea was that, if a Soviet sneak attack wiped out the usual centers of control and command, the military staff aboard Looking Glass–which was always airborne and in motion–could take over and coordinate a counterattack. This must have been a cheerful job.

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Here is the interior of a Looking Glass plane as it appeared in 1973, at the height of the Cold War. The planes flew without a break from 1961 to 1990.

There was, of course, more than one Looking Glass aircraft. In fact SAC (Strategic Air Command) had a fleet of them, first EC-135Cs and later other aircraft, flying in shifts from Offutt and various other air bases. The point was to have at least one Looking Glass plane in the air all the time, every moment of every day, just in case the Russians chose one precise moment to destroy the world. From that day, February 3, 1961, there was a Looking Glass plane aloft continuously for the next 29 years, until July 24, 1990 when the Air Force thought the Cold War had warmed up enough to allow the previously unthinkable situation of letting a Looking Glass plane sit on the ground for a change (but still fully staffed and ready to take off). The only break in this 29-year streak was a brief episode in March 1980 when Looking Glass flight missions were fouled up by bad weather. I guess the only reason we’re all still here is because Brezhnev must have been asleep or drunk or something on that particular evening and missed attacking in the gap.

There is still a Looking Glass program today. We don’t know exactly where or what sort of plane is flying the mission (or perhaps waiting on the ground) at any given time, but the concept of a mobile back-up nuclear command center remains viable. Right now, as you’re reading this, someone, somewhere is sitting in a darkened control room in the cabin of an airplane, waiting to take control of a war that has not begun and hopefully never will. Think of all the resources that have been expended on this since 1961: the fuel, the energy, the time, training, computer and technical parts, procedures, paperwork, Congressional funding, and all the endless worry that goes along with waiting for doomsday. What must the crew of Looking Glass have been thinking and feeling during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or on the day that KAL 007 was shot down over the Pacific? “Crap, maybe we’re actually going to have to do it this time.” Imagine if your job involved launching a nuclear war that would likely result in the extinction of the human species. Imagine what you’d feel like going in to work every day. That’s what the crews of Looking Glass have had to deal with for decades.

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Many of the Looking Glass missions took off from Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, the headquarters of SAC. My father was stationed there in the 1980s, when this photo of the base was taken.

Don’t get me wrong, I suppose something like Looking Glass is probably necessary and prudent. But you can’t help the feeling that, at the same time, it’s insane and absurd. This is an example of how war, and especially nuclear war, twists logic and rationality into bizarre pretzels, where things that seem immoral, absurd or unthinkable not only become rational and thinkable, but imperative and inevitable. There is, in this sort of thinking, a deep injury to our collective morality. What sort of crazy world do we live in where something like Looking Glass is normal, and indeed indispensable? A plane that roams the skies 24 hours a day, hoping against hope that the mission it was designed for will never occur? There’s a kind of nihilism in that thought, and one that makes you wonder where humanity went wrong. Though it will probably never have to fulfill its grim purpose, I hope I never actually see a Looking Glass plane in real life. Just knowing it’s out there somewhere is depressing enough.

All images in this article are in the public domain.
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3 Comments

  1. You have a failure to understand the purpose of Looking Glass. It wasn’t so we could launch a war, if the Soviets wiped out the ground command facilities. It was to send the message that even IF the Soviets could somehow wipe out Offutt AFB, AND Westover AFB AND Barksdale AFB AND March AFB, their was yet another Command and Control node available. And it wasnt alone. Their was also AuxOP EC-135’s flying over the east and west, and the Navy had the TACAMO aircraft aloft as well. And then their was the mobile command and control team as well. All that layer upon layer of capability was not to LAUNCH a war, but to send the message crystal clear that no sneak attack could wipe our our ability to respond in a massive retaliation. That’s why the US took pains to ensure all this ‘secret’ capability was well known. It was a flying “Don’t Tread on Me!” flag, and it worked. By the way, the airborne mission is now covered by the E-6’s of the Navy TACAMO aircraft of Navy Strategic Communication WIng One.

  2. Clearly sir, you have no real experience upon which to base your thesis. I had the honor of spending 5K hours in these aircraft through the 1980 – – – >1991 time frame. The mission of Looking Glass entailed more than you express, and involved more aircraft & units than you mention. You should note, however that our primary role was to support HQ SAC, which is to whom Westover, Barksdale, March were also responsible.

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