Rare Glimpse Into Presidential Communications On Board Air Force One Shown in First Phone Call Between President Biden and Prime Minister Starmer

Presidential call
Prime Minister Keir Starmer speaks on the phone with US President Joe Biden from his office in 10 Downing Street. The box on the right shows a file photo of Biden talking on the phone inside a C-32 (Image credit: The Aviationist using photographs by Simon Dawson/No 10 Downing Street and Adam Schultz/White House)

A video released to document the first phone call between U.S. President Joe Biden and newly-elected British Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer has offered a rare glimpse into the logistics behind Presidential communications on board Air Force One.

One of the first things on the schedule for a new U.S. President or British Prime Minister is to speak to their opposite number over the phone. When the new Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer placed the traditional phone call following a landslide election victory, President Biden was in the air on board Air Force One.

The video, although clearly edited for brevity, shows the call being directed by, presumably, White House Communications Agency staff in the White House Situation Room complex to another member of staff on board Air Force One, who then connected the call to President Biden.

For obvious security reasons, exact technical details on Presidential communications are difficult to come by in the public domain. We do know that the U.S. Air Force upgraded some of the phone systems on board its VIP aircraft fleet in the early 2010s, replacing the well known white and beige twin phone handset system that dated from the 1980s. The white phones were used for unsecure lines, while beige handsets could be used for secure calls.

The new phones installed in this upgrade were an L-3 Communications product branded Airborne Executive Phone (AEP), and these phones have been shown continuing in use with the Biden administration. The handsets can be connected to both secured and unsecured lines, with a built in LED and display showing colour indicators denoting which type of call is currently in progress – red for secured, green for unsecured.

President Joe Biden pictured conducting an interview using an Airborne Executive Phone handset on board Air Force One on Feb. 26, 2021. (Image credit: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

The President has also been pictured making use of Cisco VoIP (voice over internet protocol) office-style phones on board both VC-25 and C-32 aircraft. These phones were implemented throughout the White House and associated Presidential locations, including aircraft, in the 2000s in a technical refresh, but were used alongside the existing white and beige phones rather than in place of them.

Air Force One Detroit
One of the two VC-25As (Image credit: Tom Demerly/The Aviationist).

They also provide a secure communications capability, although presumably the newer AEP system is more sophisticated in this regard. It is unknown how the two systems interact with each other, if at all, or in which circumstances one phone might need to be used over the other. It’s also not known which type of phone was in use when President Biden was talking with Prime Minister Starmer.

Using a more traditional VoIP phone handset, President Biden talks with then President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil on board a C-32 serving as Air Force One on Oct. 31, 2022. (Image credit: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Starmer’s New Government

The phone call between President Biden and Prime Minister Starmer touched on and directly referred to the special relationship that exists between the United States and United Kingdom. Both sides have reaffirmed their commitment to this relationship, and Sir Keir Starmer also made clear that his government’s support for Ukraine is unwavering.

Among the other phone calls made by Starmer on his first day was one with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who congratulated the new Prime Minister on his victory and thanked him for signaling a continued commitment. The pair have previously met on several occasions, with Starmer even having made a visit to Kyiv in Feb. 2023 while serving as Leader of the Opposition. The two leaders will meet again, along with Biden and other Western leaders, at the 2024 NATO Summit, which will be held from July 9 to July 11, 2024 in Washington D.C.

Newly appointed British Secretary of State for Defence John Healey has already made a visit to Ukraine as part of his new role, meeting President Zelensky and Rustem Umerov, Ukraine’s defence minister, in Odesa on July 7, 2024 where they attended a Ukrainian Navy Day commemoration.

Healey used the trip to announce a new package of material support for Ukraine’s military, including ninety Brimstone missiles, fifty small boats, ten more AS90 self propelled guns, and a quarter of a million rounds of .50 calibre ammunition. He also confirmed that the existing shipment promised by Rishi Sunak’s government in Apr. 2024, featuring a huge amount of missiles and vehicles, will continue, with the goal of expediting delivery so that the supplies reach Ukraine within one hundred days.

For the UK’s defence, the new Labour government promised in its election manifesto to hold a new Strategic Defence Review in the first year of taking office. Since the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review which led to the early retirement of the UK’s Harrier fleet, a defence review has typically been held by the UK government every five years. The 2021 Integrated Review was originally due for release in 2020, but was published behind schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A new defence review released in 2025 would therefore fit the now traditional schedule.

It seems possible in this post-Ukraine invasion review we would see a renewed focus towards the European theatre, stepping back a degree from the tilt towards Asia and the Pacific that followed the 2021 Integrated Review. While existing strong partnerships, like AUKUS and the UK’s recent close cooperation with Japan, will likely continue, the new Defence Secretary has previously warned that the UK is unable to simultaneously fulfil its commitments in Europe while also being a major player in the Indo-Pacific.

At present, the UK is still expected to send an F-35B equipped Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier and escorts to the Indo-Pacific region in 2025 in a deployment known currently as Carrier Strike Group 2025. This will be a roughly similar mission as the previous Carrier Strike Group 21 deployment held in 2021, traveling as far as Japan and then returning, conducting exercises in various locations along the way. Barring any unexpected developments, the deployment seems likely to still go ahead. Many preparations ahead of the extended trip are already underway, with maintenance schedules of the Royal Navy’s Type 45 destroyers and Type 23 frigates being planned to ensure their availability. The Royal Navy also has a history in modern times of conducting these types of long-distance deployments even prior to the recent policy shift towards the Indo Pacific. A notable example of this was the Taurus 09 deployment in 2009 led by helicopter carrier HMS Ocean (L12) which stretched as far as Singapore and featured on the second series of documentary TV show Warship.

Two F-35Bs during operations on the HMS Queen Elizabeth. (Photo: Royal Navy)
About Kai Greet
Kai is an aviation enthusiast and freelance photographer and writer based in Cornwall, UK. They are a graduate of BA (Hons) Press & Editorial Photography at Falmouth University. Their photographic work has been featured by a number of nationally and internationally recognised organisations and news publications, and in 2022 they self-published a book focused on the history of Cornwall. They are passionate about all aspects of aviation, alongside military operations/history, international relations, politics, intelligence and space.