The Fascinating Anatomy of the Presidential Motorcade

Going inside the safest and most dangerous place on the road.

Mallory Short / Mark Elias//Getty Images / Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Presidential Motorcade is both the safest and seemingly the riskiest convoy on the planet. This globe-trotting fleet of vehicles is basically a rolling, armored White House, complete with its own contingency response force, communications office, press corps and medical facilities.

AP

The Presidential Motorcade readly to roll.

The Presidential Motorcade is built from a fleet of both custom and sometimes rented vehicles. A finite amount of Presidential limousines exist, with between 16 and 20 being an estimate. Careful planning and a logistical symphony has to take place in order to pre-position the most capable (and usually newest) vehicles based on the threat level and operating environment at each destination.

It is not uncommon of for the President to visit three separate cities during a single day, especially during campaign season. That means three separate motorcade detachments need to be forward deployed to those cities. This is done via USAF heavy-transports such as C-17s, or on some occasions, a single C-5 Galaxy.

USAF

A pair of Presidential Limos are loaded onto a C-17 Globemaster III.

In addition to the Presidential Motorcade being forward deployed to where the President is heading, it is now usually customary to deploy a pair of Presidential Airlift helicopters to the destination regardless of if they are used or not. These could be either a pair of “Marine One” VH-3D Sea Kings or VH-60N Black Hawks belonging to Marine Helicopter Squadron 1, otherwise known as HMX-1. The unit is located along the Potomac River in Quantico, Virginia. Like the motorcade, these choppers usually arrive via USAF heavy transport and they are often not seen outside of a local orientation and maintenance check flight that occurs days before the President arrives

Marine One VH-3D and support MV-22s, all belonging to HMX-1, as well as the "The Beast," seen during a Presidential visit to Manhattan. 

Their main mission is to offer the White House and the Secret Service a contingency presidential transport solution in an any number of types of emergency or special circumstance.

Multiple USAF heavy transports are required to facilitate a single presidential visit, and those flights come at a steep cost.  

AP

"The Beast" rolls across the apron with C-5 Galaxy transports in the background.

The Presidential Motorcade consists of a wide variety of vehicles. The exact configuration changes depending on the mission and the assets at hand, but the basic layout diagrammed in this story is fairly customary. Sometimes extra cars are added in different positions, and just because the Presidential limousines are in motion, the President isn't necessarily inside one of them. The protective detail of the Secret Service are masters of what they do, and they know how to optimize their capabilities against a potential enemy's weaknesses and strengths.

Generally the Presidential Motorcade is made up of the following components:

The key components of the Presidential Motorcade. 

Route Car & Pilot Car

The Route Car runs minutes ahead of the Presidential Motorcade, presumably checking the route and providing guidance for inbound "sweepers" [see below] while also providing intelligence to the entire motorcade. The Pilot Car does the same but runs a minute or even just seconds in front of the motorcade. It may be accompanied by motorcycle police to cut off key intersections and highway overpasses.

Sweepers

These are usually throngs of police on motorcycles and in patrol cars as part of a Presidential Motorcade. They deploy in front of the motorcade, clearing the way so that the motorcade’s speed can remain as consistent.

Lead Car

The lead of the core of the Presidential Motorcade formation. It works as a guide and a buffer for what lies ahead. It can be a Secret Service Suburban, a local marked police car, or really any car the Secret Service chooses—such as the BMW pictured.

AP

A BMW lead car with the Presidential Limo in tow makes its way through tight streets in the UK.

Presidential Limousine: Code Name "Stagecoach" or "Spare"

The Presidential limousine rides at the very center of the motorcade “package.” What appears to be a very heavy Cadillac is really an extremely survivable and luxurious armored car. "The Beast" as latest addition to Presidential limo history is known, is outfitted with a plethora of unique capabilities and countermeasures, each one aimed at keeping the President safe and allowing him to rapidly evade danger during an attack, whether direct (ambush) or indirect (gassing a city, etc).

Paul Carter

A pair of 2005 DTS style Presidential limousines in the motorcade.

The Beast's defense capabilities include top-level ballistic armoring, night vision/infrared driving systems, a sealed cabin with an independent air supply capable of enduring a nuclear-biological-chemical (NBC) attack, and even a supply of the President’s blood type. Other rumored features include infrared smoke-screen and oil slick deployment capability, as well as tear gas dispensers, and, frankly, just about anything you or Tom Clancy can think of. All of this is in addition to a state-of-the-art communications connectivity system, including internet and secure telephone communications.

AP

"The Beast" at the Capital steps. The type was introduced in 2009.

"The Beast," which was introduced in 2009 during President Obama's inauguration, has an imposing stance, and looks like the offspring of a Cadillac STS and an MRAP. For all its obvious benefits, this cool-looking Presidential hauler has its detractors. The limousine is more of an armored assault truck than a car, yet it does not benefit from an assault truck's ground clearance. It can be tricky to maneuver on tight city streets, is said to be extremely heavy, and has broken down while on high-profile missions. To be fair, the older model was not immune to breaking down either. 

AP

A secret service agent dusts off The Beast while on a mission. 

There are a finite number of these new "Beast" cars and oftentimes the President will be seen riding in a 2005 Cadillac DTS inspired Presidential limousine, or even one of the Secret Service's up-armored Suburbans that are regularly used to move the Vice President and other VVIPs around. 

AP

One of the Secret Service's armored Suburbans.

In fact, when traveling overseas to especially dangerous locales with questionable road conditions, armored Suburbans can make up almost the entire Presidential Motorcade. This was the case in Iraq, where up-armored Humvees were used as 'sweepers.' The sticks attached to the top of the Suburbans in the picture below are the aerials for improvised explosive device jamming equipment.

White House

Obama heads to Camp Victory in Baghdad.

The 'Stagecoach,' the name for whatever car the President is in, is the whole focus of Presidential Motorcade. Everything is centered on making sure that car makes it to its destination. In addition to 'Stagecoach,' at least one identical car always accompanies it, and sometimes many more. These cars, known as 'Spares,' are used as a backup and blocking vehicle should POTUS's vehicle have a mechanical issue or is attacked, as well a serving as decoys.

While the motorcade is in motion, highly trained Secret Service drivers execute a classic roving 'shell game,' weaving Stagecoach and Spare, or Spares, in and out among each other so that a would-be attacker would have a tough time picking the car actually containing the President. The Presidential limousines even have identical plates.

AP

A pair of "Beasts" act as Stagecoach and Spare. 

The Secret Service agents that drive the Presidential limousines are among the best and most trusted personnel in the institution. They go through constant drills at the Secret Service’s sprawling James J. Rowley training complex, including defensive and offensive driving courses, as well as elaborate life-like tactical scenarios that bring all the elements of the motorcade together to defeat or evade a whole slew of possible threats.

White House

President & First Lady seen in "The Beast." 

Currently, the Secret Service is working on a new Presidential limo that should be ready for the 2017 Inauguration, and will likely replace the 2005 DTS-style armored limousines that will be over a decade old.

White House

President making a call in a Secret Service heavily armored VVIP Suburban.

Presidential Security Detail SUV: Code Named "Halfback"

Halfback is the following car for Stagecoach and Spare(s), and it carries the President's Secret Service protective detail. Usually this vehicle is a specially outfitted Chevrolet Suburban with police lights mounted on a light bar, in the interior windows, and in the grill. This is basically the President's first line of backup should something occur while en route, and it will follow a pre-planned set of defensive driving and VIP protection tactics based on a long list of contingencies. Rear-facing third row seating usually has at least one overtly armed Secret Service Agent sitting with the window or tailgate open.

Paul Carter

The President's security detail riding in Halfback.

Electronic Countermeasures Vehicle Code Name: “Watchtower”

This vehicle has large vertical aerials and domes on its spine and actively jams communications and remote detonating devices. In some configurations, it may also work at detecting incoming projectiles and small unmanned aircraft via short-wave radar.

This vehicle, along with others in the motorcade, may also provide laser warning (used by some anti-tank guided missiles) and radar warning for the convoy. If a threat is detected, such as one using a laser for designation and ranging, or if a threat radar were detected, IR smoke, chaff and targeted jamming could be deployed, disrupting such an attack.

Paul Carter

Electronics countermeasure vehicle with its unique profile. 

Counter-improvised explosive device (IED) and communications selective and barrage jamming technology have come a long way after almost a decade and half of counter-insurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the height of both wars, remotely detonated IEDs were the leading cause of casualties among deployed forces. Systems such as the CREW Duke have likely saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives overseas. Even more advanced technology has been deployed across Afghanistan and Iraq on MRAPs, APCs and armored cars during the latter half of the last decade, much of which is also likely deployed on this life-saving support vehicle.

Control Vehicle & Support Vehicles

Support Vehicles usually transport high-value staff, such as parts of the President's cabinet and their security detail, as well as additional security personnel and the President's doctor.

The Control Vehicle carries a top military aid with the highest level of clearance, who would assist the Commander-in-Chief during a major military incident, giving operational guidance, and if need be, activating the Nuclear Football. These vehicles are usually modified SUVs, such as Chevrolet Suburbans with enhanced communications and low-profile police lighting, or rented vans.

AP

The Presidential Motorcade makes its way through traffic on a rain-soaked highway. 

Counter Assault Team Vehicles: Nicknamed "Hawkeye Renegade"

These vehicles are also usually black Suburbans or some other large SUV, with police lights, rails and running boards for external transport of agents, and they always have their rear gates ajar with a heavily armed and armored commando hanging out of the back, assault rifle at the ready.

The Secret Service's Counter Assault Team, known as the 'CAT,' gives the Presidential Motorcade its heavy hitting combat punch. These elite Secret Service operators, selected from a tiny fraction of those who apply, carry state-of-the-art arms, including assault rifles, night vision goggles, expendables like flash bangs and concussion grenades, and sometimes heavy body armor.

AP

The heavily-armed CAT riding in one of the motorcade's Suburbans. 

The CAT is the direct action unit that rapidly counter-attacks if the convoy is ambushed, or it sets up a defensive buffer if the convoy were about to be attacked. Meanwhile, the President's Security Detail would work to rapidly evacuate the President from the scene.

Imagine an advancing, overwhelming, wall-like onslaught of suppressive fire and you get the picture of what these highly trained operators are all about. If they can't vanquish a threat as it emerges or immediately extinguish an attack as it is initiated, they buy the President's security detail time and space.

AP

The CAT on the move during a mission.

Intelligence Division Vehicle: The "ID Car"

This vehicle works as a 'big picture' intelligence node, communicating with over-watch and surveillance units, local police, and other intelligence sources about possible threats or obstacles along the motorcade's route. The agents in this car try to identify problems before they occur.

Hazard Materials Mitigation Unit

This black work truck carries sensors to detect, and gear to respond to, nuclear, biological or chemical (NBC) weapons attacks that threaten the Motorcade. It also works as a roving storage vehicle, carrying supplies and other classified capabilities.

Paul Carter

The HAZMAT Mitigation Unit on the roll. 

Press Vans

These vehicles are usually large vans that carry the White House Press Corps in the motorcade. Obviously, this space is reserved for major news outlets and the White House media team. This includes a camera, wire and general press vans.

The White House Communications Agency Vehicle: Code Name "Roadrunner"

Roadrunner, also known as the Mobile Command and Control Vehicle, is one of the most conspicuous vehicles in Motorcade. A beefed-up Suburban, it houses a large satellite communications array and posts an antenna farm along its roof-line.

Paul Carter

White House Communivation Agency vehicle code named Road Runner. 

This vehicle keeps the President and White House officials securely connected to the world, providing encrypted voice, internet and video communications via the Pentagon’s constellation of hardened communications satellites. This vehicle may also be able to handle communications for nuclear arms release.

Roadrunner also helps facilitate secure communications within the Motorcade itself. Think of it as a big rolling data encryption center, wifi hotspot, radio repeater and doomsday communications control center.

Ambulance

An ambulance is a constant feature at the rear of the Presidential Motorcade. It is there to treat injuries that may occur following an attack, a wreck or an unexpected biological event. This resource is primarily reserved for the President.

Paul Carter

An ambulance is always in tow. 

Rear Guard

This is usually a phalanx of local police vehicles, such as motorcycles and marked patrol cars. Their job is to provide early warning and a defensive buffer for the rear of the motorcade.

AP

A brace of police motorcycle officers makes up the Rear Guard.

Overwatch

When the President travels, the Secret Service gets access to a Department of Homeland Security helicopter that provides intelligence, planning and over-watch for presidential movements. Depending on where the President is headed, this mission can be executed using a Coast Guard, Border Patrol, US Customs or other federal government chopper.

Paul Carter

A Secret Service agent peers out the side of a USCG MH-60T.

Ground Force One

Although rarely deployed in Presidential travel, a pair of heavily modified and thickly armored buses were procured by the Secret Service around the turn of the decade. The joint project between Prevost Car and Hemphill Brothers Coach Company, known as the model X3-45 VIP 3, allows the President to travel more efficiently by road in rural areas when many stops are on the schedule.

AP

The blacked-out Ground Force One sits at the ready. 

Once delivered, these roving White Houses were painted gloss black and had advance communications installed to interconnect them with Roadrunner and the world beyond, as well as other improvements similar to what you would find in the Presidential limousine. Both limo buses were used leading up to the 2012 election, with President Obama using them to campaign across America's heartland.

AP

Obama waving from the entry of Ground Force One. 

So there you have it: the real anatomy of the Presidential Motorcade. On a personal note, I have had the pleasure to see the whole motorcade, Air Force One, Marine One, Secret Service ballet multiple times with my own eyes. It is an absolutely amazing spectacle to watch.

The incredible focus and professionalism of everyone involved, and the way they balance time and risk, is mind boggling. When you think of the term 'well-oiled machine,' this is the picture that should pop into your head. There is an absolutely astonishing amount of moving parts that go into each and every Presidential movement.

White House

The Presidential Motorcade touring Jordan's historical sites. 

The times I've had the privilege to watch Air Force One’s arrival and departure, the motorcade moved into formation almost magically, zooming up to the President at the exact moment and speeding triumphantly across the tarmac in a wheel-like formation when he returned. Once stopped at the steps of Air Force One—just as its jet engines were spooling up—the President got out of his limousine, ran up the stairs and waved goodbye, the cabin door shutting after he entered. At that exact moment, the iconic 747 was rolling down the apron. Meanwhile the motorcade was ripping off back across the tarmac to prepare for transport. It is a single fluid and perfectly-timed set of movements.

I had never seen anything like it in my life and it plays far different in person than on television.

What I took away from these experiences, including observing the throngs of sharp shooters and heavily armed men and women staring at virtually everything behind tinted sunglasses, is this is not only a critical mission, but it is also an art form and a showcase of what we are capable of as a nation. 

AP

The Presidential Motorcade speeds across the tarmac after leaving Air Force One.

I have seen this in the military before—to varying degrees, and especially in top tier units, where it is not just about schedules or procedures, but also about nailing it exactly the same way every time and making it look easy. Of course, it's anything but easy, and the Secret Service has to get it right every time.

All the technology that goes into protecting the President is amazing, and frankly, so is the price tag. But there is a reason why this incredible traveling show, perhaps the most expensive in the world, rarely makes news beyond the objective of the mission itself. That is because the people orchestrating it are absolutely the best at what they do and they go about their business knowing that the world is watching.

AP

The Presidential Motorcade moves along Highway 101. 

Sure there have been recent controversies, but the White House arm of the Secret Service is a national treasure. They have a mind blowingly difficult job and they deserve much more recognition than they will ever receive. The fact that the most powerful and targeted man on earth can drive around where he wants to go on a regular basis, and it all seems normal and uneventful, is just a reminder of that.

Contact the author at tyler@thedrive.com