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US Navy taps additive manufacturing to help keep E-6B Mercury aircraft flying

The US Navy is using additive manufacturing to replace parts on its E-6B Mercury aircaft. (US Navy)

The US Navy (USN) started installing water separators about its E-6B Mercury communications relay and strategic airborne command post aircraft in January that had been made through additive manufacturing, according to Captain Adam Scott, the programme manager for the Airborne Strategic Command, Control and Communications Program Office.

Using additive manufacturing to secure parts for the E-6Bs is an example of the lengths the programme office must take to make sure it keeps the Mercury fleet aloft, Capt Scott told Janes.

“It's an ageing aircraft,” he noted, adding that there's no acceptable margin for any down time for the E-6Bs or their mission.

“We have to connect the [US] president to his nuclear forces,” Capt Scott said.

The E-6B Mercury provides survivable, reliable, and endurable airborne command, control, and communications between the National Command Authority (NCA) and US strategic and non-strategic forces. Two squadrons, VQ-3 and VQ-4, deploy more than 20 aircrews from Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma to meet these requirements.

Boeing derived the E-6A from its commercial 707 to replace the ageing EC-130Q in the performance of the navy's Take Charge and Move Out (TACAMO) mission. TACAMO links the NCA with naval ballistic missile forces during times of crisis. The aircraft carries a very low-frequency communication system with dual trailing wire antennas. The navy accepted the first E-6A in August 1989.

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