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Air Force One Has New Defensive Systems, Antennas

Plans for a new presidential aircraft by the end of the decade have been set aside, but the current “flying White House” is constantly being upgraded and has been observed with new communications and defensive systems.

A new aircraft was once expected sooner. “We have recognized for several years now that the Air Force One replacement is out there in our future in the late teens,” Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said in September 2011. But since then, the recapitalization plan has been put on hiatus.

929000 tailcone

The tail cone of Air Force One bristles with defensive systems at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., in June 2012. Photo and annotations by John Gourley

President Barack Obama famously criticized Detroit automobile executives for using business jets to fly to Washington for a Capitol Hill appearance. That, plus a simple absence of funding, means that what the Air Force calls Presidential Aircraft Recapitalization (PAR) is going nowhere. In the past the Air Staff quoted a target date of 2017, and later revised it to 2019. More recently, officials say a new plane for the commander-in-chief is still farther away.

The Boeing 747-8 and Airbus A380 have been named as possible candidates to replace the existing presidential Boeing 747s. In 2009, Airbus’s parent company said it would offer a candidate to any competition for a new Air Force One.

There appears to be no issue of structural fatigue with the presidential 747s. As of 2009, the last year for which figures were released, each aircraft had flown about 6,500 hours and was expected to log 450 hours per year. A 747 airliner of the same vintage, kept in the air far more often, would have at least ten times as many airframe hours on its structure.

 

Bumps and Bulges

929000 conformal antennas

Multi-purpose conformal antennas are almost flush against the fuselage side of this VC-25A presidential aircraft at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., in June 2012.
Photo and annotations by John Gourley

“Air Force One” is the radio callsign for any Air Force aircraft with the president aboard. The term is used conversationally to refer to two VC-25As, or Boeing 747-200s (serial numbers 86-28000 and 86-29000) that have pulled presidential transportation duty since 1990. George H. W. Bush was the first president to fly on one of the 747s.

The aircraft are flown by the Presidential Airlift Group (PAG), and belong to Air Mobility Command’s 89th Airlift Wing, based at Andrews AFB, Md.

During a stop at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., in June, aircraft 86-29000 was seen to be equipped with various items that help keep the president in touch and provide security.

Not new to the VC-25A:

  • About five AN/ALQ-204 Matador infrared (IR) countermeasures devices are located at the tail and behind the four engines, Previously used on the VC-137C (Boeing 707-320B) presidential aircraft and on airliners and executive aircraft, the device emits pulsed IR signals to foil attacks by heat-seeking missiles.

Thought to be new or recent additions to the VC-25A:

  • An AN/AAR-54(V) missile launch warning receiver located at the tail is intended to report and track missile threats by zeroing in on their ultraviolet exhaust signature. The receiver is also in use on special-operations warplanes like the MC-130H Combat Talon II.
  • The AN/AAQ-24 Nemesis Directional Infra-Red Counter Measures (DIRCM) system, which can be directed by the AAR-54, fires pulsating flashes of IR energy that confuse a missile’s guidance system.
  • Conformal antennas: the VC-25As have been retrofitted with multi-purpose conformal antennas adaptable to satellite communications systems and other purposes. They resemble Band-Aids or patches but are, in fact, antennas that appear to have no effect on the aerodynamic performance of the 747.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...