From the answer to another question I learned that the call sign Air Force One (or Marine One, Navy One or Executive One) is transferred immediately to the aircraft currently carrying the president of the USA.

When president Obama visited the Netherlands (and probably on other occasions as well), I remember him arriving in one of two identical helicopters, to not give away his aircraft to would-be attackers. Using the call sign Marine One for either would defeat that purpose.

So are additional call signs used in such a situation?

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    $\begingroup$ I'd imagine "Marine One, flight of two" would suffice, but I haven't actually ever had a radio on me when a President is flying nearby! $\endgroup$ – egid Sep 23 '15 at 16:13
  • $\begingroup$ So how would you know which one is which from the call sign? $\endgroup$ – Simon Sep 23 '15 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Simon if one is still circling while the other lands and it transpires from the ATC that the one circling is AF1. $\endgroup$ – SQB Sep 23 '15 at 16:41
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    $\begingroup$ That's not how they operate. If you watch, they always fly as a pair. $\endgroup$ – Simon Sep 23 '15 at 16:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Simon presumably you aren't intended to be able to tell which is which. From an ATC perspective a flight of two is one aircraft. Communication among the military aircraft involved is a whole different question, and one we'd probably find difficult to answer here. $\endgroup$ – egid Sep 23 '15 at 19:17

When multiple U.S. military aircraft are operating in formation, they do so as a "flight". This flight has a callsign, and in the case of Presidential transport flights, this callsign is the Presidential one, such as Air Force One or Marine One.

For POTUS transport using a fixed-wing aircraft, the flight typically consists of a single aircraft, usually one of the VC-25s specifically built for the purpose. Its fighter escort, if any (typically there is one), is a different "flight" that operates in tandem with Air Force One as the escort "element" of the complete transportation "package". Therefore, for Air Force One and for Navy or Executive fixed wing equivalents, the aircraft is the flight and has the callsign.

When the "Marine One" helicopters must be used, however, a very sophisticated "shell game" is played, as you already know. Not only are multiple helicopters used (I've seen up to 6 in use at the same time), they are externally identical in appearance, and they change position in the flight formation constantly. The Secret Service has even gone so far as to use body doubles that would make positive ID of the helicopter the actual President has entered difficult, even if an enemy faction had spotters in place to track each individual helicopter's position in the flight the whole time it's in the air.

This entire flight of multiple helicopters is what carries the "Marine One" callsign. Individual aircraft within the flight, if typical military radio procedures are followed, would be identified by adding a craft number suffix: "Marine One-One", "Marine One-Two", etc. I don't know whether the aircraft change craft numbers during flight to match formation position, or if the pilots just keep track of which chopper's where as they juggle.

So, a potential assassin would either have to take a 50-50 shot (or worse) at one of the choppers in the flight, or he'd have to coordinate with multiple launchers to attack all the choppers simultaneously (and the larger the effort, the more communication is required to plan and execute it, which increases the group's exposure and the potential for detection). If there is any reliable intel that the President would be targeted with this level of sophistication during a visit, he usually doesn't go; he has a VP, a Secretary of State and a cadre of ambassadorial representatives whose job it is to personally represent the President anywhere in the world the President himself cannot be, for any reason.

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When the president travels, a TFR (VIP Movement) is issued. This ensures that other non-authorized airplanes are not in the vicinity.

The president generally does not travel to places where there is a chance of such insecurity. Although sometimes they take precautionary measures like as mentioned here:

On 8 March 2000, President Clinton flew to Pakistan aboard an unmarked Gulfstream III while another aircraft with the call sign "Air Force One" flew on the same route a few minutes later.

Executive One is also used as a call sign for the president.

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  • $\begingroup$ When president Obama landed at the Museumplein in Amsterdam, there where two helicopters and according to the commentator, only at the last moment it became clear which one was carrying the president. You can say what you want about Amsterdam, but it's not that bad. $\endgroup$ – SQB Sep 23 '15 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ @SQB - You never know. The helicopters used as "Marine One" play this shell game every time they're used, because helicopters by their nature are slower and more delicate, and have less ability to evade or defeat a SAM or other ground fire. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Sep 23 '15 at 20:01
  • $\begingroup$ Marine One is a flight of 2-3 helos even at home in DC, so a friendly country shouldn't feel slighted to see the same. USSS's main job qualification is extreme paranoia, and given the number of US Presidents that have been killed, with good reason. $\endgroup$ – StephenS Dec 10 '18 at 15:41

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