On November 24, 1961 the headquarters of the U.S. Strategic Air Command suddenly lost all communication with the NORAD early warning facility at Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado. This meant that SAC lost its observational feeds - via NORAD - from critical early warning installations around the world: one in Clear, Alaska, another in Fylingdales, England and a third at Thule AFB in Greenland.

All would be vital in providing early warning information on a missile attack on the country (Fylingdales is also to be a part of the much-maligned NMD system, which will not protect it in an attack) and were connected to NORAD via three triply-redundant, independent telephone lines. The loss of communications from all three was therefore, from SAC's point of view, believed to mean one of four things:

  1. That all three communication lines had failed: separately, arbitrarily and simultaneously.
  2. That all three communication lines had been deliberately severed in a coordinated action.
  3. That all three surveillance posts had been blown up. Simultaneously.
  4. That NORAD had been blown up.

Odds not exactly in favour of a benign explanation.

While the Minutemen ICBMs were warmed up, the B-52s were rolled to their takeoff positions and the orbital weapon platforms were activated (wait a minute...), attempts were of course made to establish contact with the radar sites by alternative means. Assuming the worst, however, was probably something of a comfortable routine.

Contact was reestablished within ten minutes. A B-52 on airborne alert was used to successfully relay messages to and from all three early warning stations. All of the phone lines connecting them to NORAD were routed through the same relay station in Colorado, which had suffered an electrical problem cutting off all three lines. They hadn't been blown up; all was as well as it could be at that murky time in east-west relations.

Still, it showed that when, a month earlier, SAC issued a Specific Operational Requirement for a survivable UHF communications system - essentially commissioning the Emergency Rocket Communication System - it knew what it was talking about.

I could not find any information on the development of the system but I presume that to be because there is little to tell. The system used operational rockets or ICBMs, stripped of their warheads and retrofitted with communication packages. They carried prerecorded force execution instructions which would be relayed to all forces within transmission range of the rocket when it fired. Several of the rockets or missiles would be used, enough that when fired they would collectively overfly all facilities which needed to be reached in an emergency. By 'emergency' I am reading 'attack on the continental U.S. by weapons of mass destruction'.

The initial - interim - ERCS system consisted of three MER-6A Blue Scout Junior rocket systems at Wisner, West Point and Tekamah, Nebraska. These were declared operational on 11 July, 1963 and consisted of mobile systems installed in trailers. The transporter-erector-launcher was inside a modified articulated trailer, a launch tower being erected from within by hydraulics. Similar trailers also housed support facilities and a command post.

These systems were still operational when the ERCS system was retrofitted to 10 LGM-30F Minuteman II ICBMs on 10 October, 1967 at Whiteman AFB, Missouri. The Blue Scout Junior ERCS systems at Nebraska were deactivated on 1 December, 1967. The Minuteman ERCS operated up to 1991, when they were stood down having been made largely redundant by satellite-based communications.

A word about the system's real purpose, or former purpose. Rockets don't just stay up there; these communication packages will eventually come back down. Several sources say this system is 'reliable' and 'survivable'; they wouldn't survive gravity. These rockets aren't for Generals to chat to the President, or indeed for any human communication at all as far I can discern. They form part of a mechanism intended to guarantee nuclear retaliation against an enemy that succeeds in either destroying the U.S. leadership or destroying communications between key facilities. Potentially the missiles could cover forces abroad as well (the U.S. maintains strategic missile wings in seven countries besides its own), though I could not find confirmation of this.

This is really a minor issue on my part with the widely-repeated description of the system, which I find a bit misleading. I do not think that the system is truly for communication, which implies a two-way arrangement. Each missile launches, flies its preset trajectory and spits out preset instructions, after which it is spent. However, without the ERCS there would potentially be no way to relay retaliation orders in the event of a genuine attack (this matters more to some individuals than others). In the situation mentioned at the beginning of the writeup, a B-52 on airborne alert was used to contact the early warning stations with whom communications had been lost. Under attack, there may be no aircraft available to relay attack orders to missile silos; most likely they would all be on their way to bomb the crap out of something. So, um, it's fine.

Usual disclaimers about me possibly talking out of my arse and not using this information to plan a war apply. Please message me any corrections or useful details. I've made the best analysis I could with the limited information and grey matter available.