July 20, 2014

New phones aboard Air Force One

(Updated: May 15, 2021)

The location that best represents Top Level Telecommunications in every sense of the word is probably Air Force One, the aircraft that carries the president of the United States.

As unbelievable as it sounds, the telephone sets used aboard this plane dated back to the 1980s and so they were finally replaced by new ones in August 2012. Here we will take a look at this new telephone equipment, which is now used by president Obama when he travels by air.

President Obama using one of the new phones aboard Air Force One, August 13, 2012.
(White House Photo by Pete Souza - Click to enlarge)

The new phones

In a range of pictures showing president Barack Obama using a telephone aboard Air Force One, we can see that the new phones consist of a handset in a customized cradle. In the conference room they have a rubber foot so they can be placed on the table without sliding away:

President Obama using one of the new phones aboard Air Force One
(Photo: AP - October 24, 2012)

The phone sets to be used by the president in his office room and the conference room have a brown/goldish color that matches the wood and the leather chairs. All other handsets that have been installed throughout the plane are in standard gray:

President Obama talks with Chief of Staff Jack Lew, former President Bill Clinton,
Justin Cooper, David Axelrod, and Senior Advisor David Plouffe. November 4, 2012.
In the back we see two new phones in gray on a wall mounted cradle.
(White House Photo by Pete Souza - Click to enlarge)

President Obama and Press Secretary Jay Carney disembark from Air Force One.
Left of the door we see a wall mounted version of new phone in gray.
(White House Photo by Pete Souza - June 17, 2014)

The Airborne Executive Phone

These new phones aboard Air Force One can be recognized as the Airborne Executive Phone (AEP) made by L-3 Communications. This is a military contractor that, among many other things, also manufactures the STE, the secure desktop telephone that is most widely used by US military and government.

The Airborne Executive Phone is able to make both secure and non-secure calls from a single handset. It also provides Multiple Independent Levels of Security (MILS) for digital voice and internet data access. This should provide end users with the experience of "reliable connectivity, interoperability and security they would have in an executive office environment".

Global Secure Information Management Systems

The Airborne Executive Phone is part of L-3 Communication's Global Secure Information Management Systems (GSIMS). This is an IP-based system for secure airborne communications and has a modular, scalable, and redundant design.

GSIMS integrates existing analog and digital radio and interphone systems with its own IP-based architecture, this in order to provide reliable connectivity, secure video conferencing and controlled wireless connections. The system is effectively controlled from an operator workstation.

L-3 Communications advertises (pdf) the GSIMS system as the most advanced secure communication system for VIP and Head of States aircraft:

More details about the Global Secure Information Management Systems (GSIMS) can be found in the fact sheet (pdf).

Development and installation

The installation of new phones aboard Air Force One was part of a larger, 81 million dollar contract that was awarded to L-3 Communications in 2009. This contract included the installation of Airborne Information Management Systems (AIMS) hardware and software. It modernized the on-board communication systems and replaced outdated analog systems, providing fixed bandwidth switching and integrated secure/non-secure video teleconferencing. Also included was the installation of seamless passenger information interfaces throughout the VC-25 aircraft that serve as Air Force One.

It seems that the Airborne Executive Phone (AEP) was originally developed by Telecore Inc., as can be read in the resume of someone who made a video presentation of this device (he did the same for the Senior Leadership Airborne Information Management System of L-3 Communications). Telecore is the company that manufactures the IST-2 telephone for the Defense Red Switch Network (DRSN), which is also a single device that can be used for both secure and non-secure calls. Probably Telecore sold the AEP to L-3 Communications.

Secure and non-secure calls

As we can see in the L-3 Communications advertisement, secure calls are indicated by a red background in the display and non-secure calls by a green one. This corresponds with two lights on the back of the handset: a green light that flashes when a non-secure call comes in and a red light when it's a secure one. During the call the green or the red light stays on:

President Obama talks with NASA's Curiosity Mars rover team aboard Air Force One,
August 13, 2012. We see the green light on, as this is an unencrypted call.
(White House Photo by Pete Souza - Click to see the full version)

President Barack Obama talks on the phone aboard Air Force One, April 10, 2014.
Here we see the red light on, and interestingly, the White House didn't
release to whom Obama was talking on this occasion.
(White House Photo by Pete Souza - Click to see the full version)

Air Force Two

The new Airborne Executive Phones are also installed in the smaller Boeing C-32, a modified Boeing 757, which gets the air traffic call sign Air Force Two when it is carrying the vice-president of the United States. Sometimes this plane is also used by the president, and then serves as Air Force One, like for example for a trip on July 17, 2014 to the Port of Wilmington in Delaware:

President Obama talks on the phone with president Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine
about the Malaysia Airlines plane crash in eastern Ukraine, July 17, 2014.
Here we see the new phone in gray, and as Obama's finger is covering
the red light, and the green light is off, it seems a secure call.
(White House Photo by Pete Souza - Click to enlarge)

The old phones aboard Air Force One

Initially, the current Air Force One had 85 telephones installed all over the plane. These consisted of a cradle and an old-fashioned, so-called G-style handset. They came in two versions, one in white and one in beige. The white handset was for non-secure calls and the beige one for phonecalls over a secure line. These telephones were introduced on the previous plane that served as Air Force One, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan(!).

President Obama takes questions from seven reporters from the black press aboard
Air Force One on their way to the NAACP convention in New York. July 2009.
In this picture we see the phones that were previously used.
(White House Photo)

After the new Executive Voice over Secure IP (VoSIP) telephone network was installed in 2007-2008, which connects the White House with some of the most senior policy makers, the Cisco 7975G Unified IP Phone used for this network was also placed in Air Force One, where the big device was somewhat out of place:

Close-up of the white and the beige handsets and the Cisco 7975 IP phone
in the conference room of Air Force One, March 2009.
(Photo: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)

Now, all these three different phones have been replaced by a single Airborne Executive Phone, which connects to both ordinary and highly secure telephone networks.

- Insider: 31 photos that show how Air Force One has changed through the years (2021)
- The Drive: "Air Force One" Jet Reemerges With Upgraded Communications For World Trip (2017)
- jp.MSN.com: 米大統領専用機の電話はアイアンマンっぽいヘンな電話
- Gizmodo: The Phones on Air Force One Look Like Iron Man Accessories
- Tinker AFB: Maintenance in chief: Looking after Air Force One
- History of the Presidential Telephones of the United States
- Radiocommunications: Air Force 1 Information

More comments in the Hacker News thread


Anonymous said...

First time reading your blog and just want to express my appreciation. Your articles are very interesting and - quite surprisingly - extremely well researched. Which is something you rarely come across these days. Especially your stuff on the Snowden "revelations" would really deserve more attention. Which is not to say that articles like this one wouldn't, interesting topic. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't help but noting that L3 use the "word" unsecure for a phone that is in fact secured to the armrest. While they should use the word insecure even when talking about IT security.


Most likely just a sales PDF never even scoffed at by the anal geeks at L3 who actually write the systems.

Anonymous said...

Hello. Thanks for this post news, PK.

It is curious they use Red as SECURE, instead of Green; Green being known generally as "safe" .

Regarding vocabulary; typically the wording is "non-secure" for communications. Someone did not get the lesson. Telecore used to be Electrospace, Inc., a Chrysler company ( as you have mentioned ).

Best wishes.

Anonymous said...

Mfrs model numbers are nice, but the NSA nomenclature, at least for the older phones, was STU-x x=1-3 (or more) wasn't it?

Anonymous said...

Electrospace was purchased by Raytheon and made part of the Raytheon collective. Telecore is not Electrospace.

P/K said...

Thanks for the comments!

Many people wondered about the red/green color coding, but green for non-secure and red for secure calls is according to the official color coding scheme for classified information - they can be seen right next to the pictures in the sidebar at the right side of this weblog.

Green is for everything that's Unclassified and red stands for Secret, but in this case, where it's just secure/non-secure, or actually: unclassified/classified, red indicates classified in general.

Anonymous said...

TO: PK . Thanks for your reply about Red Light/Green Light. (joke within a joke -- old school )
LOL; typical Military Think: "It's what WE dictate/demand (idi0t civilian ). Probably is "military thought" that Red was Hot ( Secured ), where Green is also thought of as
"Clean" (or Clear, hint hint ) so
if Green, be good--don't talk CLASSIFIED. You've taught me something about the new form-factor; human design engineering.
The software probably was developed similar to the STE and vIPer "user interface software" ( my quotes ) . Best regards. Joe .

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Electrospace was purchased by Raytheon and made part of the Raytheon collective. Telecore is not Electrospace.

July 21, 2014 at 9:18 PM

OK. Thank you for that "refresher" information.

P/K said...

Telecore did however took over the development/production of the IST-2 telephone from Raytheon (in some pictures the name "Raytheon" can be seen on the device), but I don't know whether this also included any personnel, etc. So regarding the phones for the DRSN, the companies that manufactured them were: Electrospace - Raytheon - Telecore.

Anonymous said...

There have been different "designator-names" for secure phones. Secure Voice (as I have learned ) systems were "KY-N" where Text/Recdord was "KW-N" and
data was KG-N. First text of reference is The Codebreakers.
( A typo within is HW-28 which actually is KW-26; due to clerical error AFAIK. I believe KY-3 and KY-9 were similar. Shortly was STU-I. Later was STU-II (which shared an encryption box on time-share basis; built in Nutley NJ USA ) . Later still was STU-III; replaced by STE; vIPer; Omni-N; and Sectera.
AT&T's last STU-III was Model 1100 where as Motorola was Sectel 1500/MMT-1500.
See CryptoMuseum and also Jerry Proc's Crypto Machines sites. And of course; check back here too. Thank you, PK. Thanks everyone. Joe Tag.

Anonymous said...
Mfrs model numbers are nice, but the NSA nomenclature, at least for the older phones, was STU-x x=1-3 (or more) wasn't it?

Anonymous said...

On examination of the lid/cover of the Notebook PC; the red-dot indicates SECRET as highest on that machine (SABI mode)? An Orange circle-dot sticker might indicate Top Secret in the machine? (chuckle). To the reader; select and examine photo.


Joe Tag

P/K said...

Thank you Joe Tag for these additional clarifications! I hope to write more about the newest secure telephone equipment, like the vIPer in the future.

midphone.com said...

Numerous individuals pondered about the red/green shading coding, however green for non-secure and red for secure calls is as indicated by the official shading coding plan for ordered data - they can be seen right alongside the photos in the sidebar at the right half of this weblog.

In Dutch: Meer over het wetsvoorstel voor de Tijdelijke wet cyberoperaties