With recent retirements of the VC-10 and C-130K along with the imminent retirement of the TriStar, the variety of aircraft fielded by the RAF is clearly dwindling. However, Tuesday 12th November 2013 saw the arrival to UK shores of the latest addition to the forces inventory – the RC-135W Rivet Joint ZZ664.
In March 2010 the Ministry of Defence confirmed the purchase of three Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft to replace the RAFs Nimrod R1 in the signals intelligence (SIGINT) role. With the R1 exiting service in July 2011 after a brief extension due to operations in Libya as part of Operation Ellamy, the UK has endured a gap in its intelligence capabilities and relied upon its allies to assist where required.
The RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft is not an uncommon sight in the skies around the UK. Operated by the 55th Wing of the USAF Air Combat Command, the type can be frequently caught at RAF Mildenhall where they operate as part of the 95th Reconnaissance Squadron however the UK will be the first, and quite probably only, foreign operator.
The delivery flight of ZZ664 departed from Greenville, Texas late in the evening of Monday 11th (GMT) and stopped briefly for fuel in Bangor, Maine before heading to the UK under callsign SAME40. Switching to callsign VULCAN51, the crew called for a low approach to runway 20 before going around and landing safely at approx 8:45 local time. Retaining its USAF ‘white top’ color scheme the tail is addorned with the traditional 51 Squadron Goose and, once landed, the aircraft back tracked to be greeted on the 8 Squadron Alpha dispersal by the Station Commander.
SIGINT is critical for any force and the equipment suite on the RC-135W allows it to perform both Communications Intelligence (COMINT) and Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) roles intercepting and analysing communications and signals. This package has been combat proven with the USAF fleet of RC-135V and RC-135W models participating in combats operations including both Iraq wars and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
As part of the purchase, the aircraft are being converted from three KC-135Rs that have been identified as low hours airframes within the tanker fleet (unconfirmed but believed to be 64-14833, 64-14838 and 64-14830). The conversion itself is being completed by L-3 Communications based in Greenville, Texas who will also handle ongoing maintenance as part of the wider Rivet Joint fleet maintenance deal. The work on the ZZ664 commenced early 2011 and it was rolled out in April 2013. Originally scheduled for delivery in December of this year it is expected to enter operational use with the RAF in late 2014.
Whilst in RAF service the RC-135W Rivet Joint will be operated by 51 Sqn based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. This squadron has a history of operating within the SIGINT role having operated the Nimrod R1 whilst in service and, prior to that, English Electric Canberras and de Havilland Comets in the same role. As part of the training for RAF crews, members of 51 Squadron have been working with their USAF counterparts in 55th Wing based out of Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska since January 2011 undertaking 1800 sorties and 32,000 flying hours already.
Recently the Rivet Joint has been subject to mainstream media scrutiny surrounding air to air refuelling and delay of an airworthiness certificate. Unlike the rest of the UKs aircraft fleet which utilise a hose and drogue system it will utilise the USAF standard boom based air to air refuelling system meaning that the RAF will be reliant upon its allies for missions beyond the capability of its internal tanks although it has since been reported that the RAF are working to agree a memorandum of understanding to allow refuelling from the USAF KC-135 and KC-10 fleet. Regarding the airworthiness certificate, it was reported the UK Military Airworthiness Authority (MAA) were delaying its issue however this has been denied by the MOD stating that the delay in arrival of the 1st aircraft (which will still be ahead of planned schedule) is purely down to timing agreements.
Despite this, the arrival of the first RC-135W Rivet Joint signifies a new chapter in the RAFs intelligence capability. With all three aircraft due for delivery by 2018 and remaining in service until 2045, the airframes will be almost 80 years old by the time they retire. Some may criticise the sense behind purchasing old airframes over a new platform however the on time delivery and proven platform may go some way to dispelling concerns though only time will tell the success of the type within the Royal Air Force.