Joint Riveting: Britain’s RC-135 Airseeker Electronic Snooping Planes
training and flying in USAF Rivet Joint planes.
Land and sea surveillance, and electronic surveillance, are missions no government can ignore. To keep its capabilities, Great Britain launched a parallel set of efforts to update its Nimrod fleet. One multi-billion pound program sought to upgrade 12 of its unique Nimrod Mk2 maritime patrol aircraft to Nimrod MRA4 status. The other effort, named Project HELIX, sought to keep its related Nimrod R1 electronic and signals intelligence/ relay aircraft fleet flying until 2025.
Both failed. The Nimrod MR2 fleet was retired in 2010, with several almost-complete MRA4s scrapped, leaving Britain with no long-range maritime surveillance aircraft. The first sign of trouble for the Nimrod R1s was an October 2008 DSCA request, conveying Britain’s official $1+ billion request to field 3 RC-135V/W Rivet Joint ELINT/SIGINT aircraft. That, too, became final, and the R1s will now leave service in 2011 – to be replaced by a joint RAF/USAF “Airseeker” program centered on the RC-135W Rivet Joint.
The RC-135 Rivet Joint
The USA operates 15 of these in-demand aircraft, which have been used in both Iraq wars, and can also be found over missions like Bosnia, Haiti, et al. Their extended “thimble” noses and cheek fairings are very recognizable, and have given them the nickname “hogs”. The USAF’s fleet went from 14 to 15 in 1999 with the addition of a converted C-135B, and currently stands at 17. Each Rivet Joint has a standard crew of 24: 2 pilots, 1 navigator, 4 airborne systems engineers, and 17 specialists to operate its electronic snooping gear.
Once its 3 planes are deployed, Britain will become the only Rivet Joint operator in the world outside of the United States. The sensitivity of its technologies are such that only a very few countries would even be considered for a sale. Australia, Britain, Canada, and possibly Japan would likely exhaust the potential list.
Rivet Joint aircraft are so important that they are assigned tasks at the national level, above even theater commanders like CENTCOM. Their crews’ job is to collect and relay signals and communications, snooping on enemy transmissions and radar emissions. The planes are advanced enough to precisely locate, record and analyze much of what is being done in the electromagnetic spectrum within their coverage area, which is large enough to cover most countries over the course of a mission flight. They can convey this information, or relay other high bandwidth communications, using a communications array that includes satellite channels, the Tactical Digital Information Link (TADIL/A), the Tactical Information Broadcast Service (TIBS), and other options.
The British will have one challenge that the Americans don’t. American RC-135V/Ws can be refueled in the air, using the USAF’s standard dorsal intake. Britain standardized on the rival hose-and-probe system used by the US Navy, however, and its current and future aerial tankers lack the required aerial boom structure. Britain’s C-135 derived E-3D AWACS planes have a forward-mounted probe, and reportedly added a receptacle that allows them to receive fuel from boom-equipped aircraft, but the British RC-135 “Airseekers” won’t have that plumbing. If they want to fly extend missions and refuel in mid-air, they’ll need help from an allied tanker with a refueling boom.
Contracts and Key Events
2011 – 2020
A 9 month HELIX assessment phase involving L-3, Lockheed, and Northrop-Grumman was down-selected to L-3 and Lockheed Martin in 2005. In April 2007, L-3’s team won the Phase 3 risk reduction contract, and became the preferred bidder for the main Nimrod R1 HELIX contract in 2009. In 2008, however, a DSCA request indicated a different course, which apparently became final in 2010: RC-135 Rivet Joint planes. The end of 2010 also delivered another hammer blow: the phase out of the entire Nimrod fleet, as part of Britain’s budgetary review. The R1s ended up as the last serving Nimrods.
The UK’s “Project Airseeker” RC-135s are expected to enter service in 2014. Meanwhile, British aircrews are training and flying in USAF Rivet Joint planes.
September 02/17: L-3 has completed the successful delivery of the third and final RC-135V/W Rivet Joint (RJ) signals intelligence aircraft to the British Royal Air Force (RAF). The company says it will also perform future baseline upgrades and periodic depot maintenance for the British fleet. The aircraft will form the back of the UK’s Airseeker capability, providing new and collaborative intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) resources in support of global security missions. When combined with the aircraft operated by the US, a pool of 20 aircraft is available. The foreign military sale was valued at approximately $1 billion.
Nov 12/13: 1st arrival. The 1st British Airseeker plane (tail #ZZ664) arrives at RAF Waddington several months ahead of schedule, after finishing flight testing and checkout in Texas. Hmm, whatever happened to “the UK decided not to take delivery until closer to the previously agreed date”?
The plane will eventually serve with No. 51 Squadron, which will be fully operational by 2017. Waddington had also been the base for Britain’s now-retired Nimrod R1s, and RAF crews haven’t been idle in the interim: they’ve already achieved more than 32,000 RC-135 flying hours in 1,800 sorties, flying operational missions with the USAF’s 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing. Sources: UK MoD, “First Rivet Joint aircraft delivered to the UK” | BBC, “Nimrod R1 replacement arrives at RAF Waddington”.
Nov 4/13: Certification delay? The UK MoD takes exception on its blog:
“The [Sunday Times] article claimed that the delivery of the Rivet Joint aircraft, which will provide a Signals Intelligence capability for the RAF had ‘been delayed’ and that ‘the absence of so called Release to Service certificate’ was the reason for the delay. This is not true.
The first Rivet Joint aircraft, which will form part of the Airseeker programme, is not due to be delivered until early 2014. The US Air Force said it would be possible to deliver it in mid-October but the UK decided not to take delivery until closer to the previously agreed date. This decision had nothing to do with Release to Service certification.
The article in the Sunday Times also claimed that ‘RAF chiefs hoped to put the plane into front line service next spring’ but this too is incorrect. The Airseeker capability is due to enter front line service with the RAF at the end of 2014, with full operating capability due in 2018. We are on track to achieve this.”
Nov 1/13: Certification delay? Media reports surface that UK Military Airworthiness Authority (MAA) dithering over the RC-135’s safety case is delaying its introduction, alongside other new RAF platforms like the A330 Voyager tankers, King Air 350ER observation planes, and Watchkeeper UAVs.
“The U.S. Air Force declared the first Airseeker ready for delivery in mid-October, six months ahead of schedule, a U.S. official with detailed knowledge of the acquisition told AIN…. [But] The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) told AIN that a three-month review of the available technical evidence in early 2012 had identified “some gaps in evidence.” The UK’s Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) acquisition organization had contracted QinetiQ to help in building a robust safety case. The U.S. official told AIN that the USAF had tired of answering the stream of questions from QinetiQ and was now referring them to Boeing, as the OEM. The MoD confirmed to AIN that DE&S had sought additional information on “a number of aircraft systems.”
The MoD told AIN that the DE&S aimed “to have the necessary evidence in place in spring 2014 to support the aircraft receiving its approval to fly to allow workup to IOC (initial operating capability)”…. [by October 2014].”
Sources: Sunday Telegraph, “Safety fears ground RAF’s spy plane” | AIN Online, “Rivet Joint Airworthiness Questioned by UK”.
Jan 22/13: Aerial Refueling. There won’t be any, unless other countries with boom-equipped tankers help out. The RC-135s use dorsal boom refueling, while the RAF’s A330s carry only drogue hoses that are compatible with other British aircraft. Britain’s E-2Ds are based on a similar 707 airframe, but they added extra plumbing and a probe up top, in order to allow probe and drogue refueling. The RC-135 Airseekers won’t receive that modification. Absent external support, therefore, the British RC-135s have about 12 hours of endurance in the air.
Countries with modern, boom-equipped refueling aircraft who could help the UK out include Australia (A330), Italy (KC-767), Saudi Arabia (A330) the UAE (A330), and the USA (KC-10, KC-46A/767). KC-135 customers like the USA, Chile, France, Israel (KC-707), Turkey, and Singapore could also do so. Daily Mail, “Embarrassment for MoD because new £650 million spy planes cannot refuel in mid-air”.
July 8/11: A UK MoD spokesperson tells Defense News that a 2nd agreement has been struck, covering ongoing RC-135 maintenance and updates:
“The chief of defense materiel signed the MoU on June 23; his U.S. counterpart signed on June 6… The MoU establishes a cooperative agreement through to 2025 for the support of the UK’s Rivet Joint system. Valued at nearly $1 billion, the MoU enables the U.K. to access spares to support its in-service equipment, provides U.S. contractor assistance in-country and on deployment, and covers deep maintenance of the aircraft fleet that includes capability updates every four years.”
RC-135 maintenance MoU to 2025
June 29/11: The final two Nimrods, a pair of R1s in service with 51 Squadron, end their service at a ceremony held at RAF Waddington. UK MoD.
Nimrod R1 retires
March 11/11: Nimrod R1s. Crews at RAF Waddington have been told that the 2 Nimrod R1 spy planes will be retained in service for at least another 3 months, beyond the planned March 31/11 date. The reports are seen as implying that the MoD may be considering using the R1s’ electronic intelligence gathering capability around Libya, monitoring the situation alongside existing AWACS planes and collecting information in advance of any possible military action. Which is what happens.Defence Management.
Jan 14/11: Training. The UK MoD announces that members of RAF 51 Squadron have completed their first week of training with the US Air Force on the RC-135 Rivet Joint, in preparation for summer 2011’s planned joint deployment of up to 4 crews with their USAF colleagues on combined operations worldwide, including Afghanistan.
Offutt Air Force Base, NB is hosting training for pilots, navigators, electronic warfare officers, intelligence operators, and airborne maintenance technicians. Training takes 3-5 months, after which the RAF personnel will return to the UK and be attached to 55th Wing’s 343rd Reconnaissance Squadron.
2008 – 2010
Dec 22/10: Britain’s Ministry of Defence describes the RC-135W Rivet Joint conversions as “the most complex combined Foreign Military Sales case and co-operative support arrangement that the UK has undertaken with the United States Air Force (USAF) since World War II,” and provides details regarding the future fleet.
All 3 planes will be based at RAF Waddington, and are expected to be in service by 2014. Up to 4 RAF crews will be trained at The Rivet Joint’s American home in Offut AFB, NE, deploying alongside their USAF colleagues on combined operations worldwide from summer 2011. In Britain, DE&S’ Airseeker team is staffing up and has moved into its new offices at Abbey Wood, with secure briefing facilities and infrastructure rated for classified USAF virtual teaming.
That cooperation will also extend to maintenance, as the MoU will maintain the planes as a joint UK/US fleet of 20 aircraft. Every 4 years, the planes will also return to prime contractor L3 Communications in Greenville, TX for a complete strip down, refurbishment, and system upgrade. What’s even more ground-breaking is Britain’s joint participation in platform improvement, under a continuous capability improvement rogram that is contracted until 2025, with options to extend work beyond this period. MoD DE&S’ Airseeker team leader Bill Chrispin characterized it this way:
“After complex negotiations with the US Government, involving multiple government departments and agencies, this ground breaking agreement will give the UK access to cutting edge technology and will also open up a wider market for world leading UK technology.”
May 20/10: Nimrod R1s. The UK Royal Air Force will send 51 Sqn’s Nimrod R1 signals intelligence aircraft to Afghanistan later in 2010, as their last mission before their retirement in March 2011. But the KC-135 Rivet Joint planes aren’t expected to arrive before 2014. Flight International.
March 22/10: Flight International quotes UK defence secretary Bob Ainsworth, who says that the UK finalized its agreement to buy 3 Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint electronic intelligence aircraft and related ground equipment on March 19/10.
The 2 remaining Nimrod R1s will be retired in 2011, and “Rivet Joint was selected as it is the only viable option that meets the requirements of our armed forces.”
Jan 13/10: RC-135s. Flight International reports that Britain will sign a contract for 3 RC-135s “within the next few weeks,” using stored American airframes modified by L-3 Communications Integrated Systems in the USA. The publication’s anonymous “senior military source” confirmed that an alternative proposal to leverage previous HELIX work, and refit the modernized Nimrod MRA4 fleet’s 3 development aircraft, had been rejected.
Recent decisions by the Brown Labour Party government will see the British Nimrod MR2 maritime patrol fleet phased out early as a cost-saving measure, but the ELINT/SIGINT function was reportedly deemed to be an essential capability.
Dec 22/09: Nimrods. The Maccleesfield Express reports that:
“A cross-party group of MPs including Sir Nicholas Winterton plus top bosses from BAE met with Defence Procurement minister Quentin Davies to discuss the possibility of further work at [BAE Woodford] which would delay the scheduled closure in 2012 for another 18 months. They had hoped to secure a contract for three new Nimrod R1 Reconnaissance planes to keep the 1,100 workers in employment, but Mr Davies said they have chosen to use American aircraft due to and [sic] intermediate deal to share planes until the new ones are ready.”
Aug 20/09: Aviation International:
“More than a year after U.S. defense officials offered three RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft as a replacement for the same number of Royal Air Force BAE Nimrod R1 signals intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft, the UK Ministry of Defence has not made a decision… But the Nimrod SIGINT replacement seems to have fallen afoul of the UK’s defense budget squeeze. The MoD told AIN that a decision would be made late this year, and the R1s would be extended in service if necessary.
…But sources on both sides of the Atlantic… said that even the remanufactured Nimrod would offer only 60 percent of the required capability, because of power and aperture considerations. Moreover it could not be in service until 2015, and would cost three times as much to operate as the Rivet Joint… the sources said the actual cost to the UK [of RC-135s] would be closer to the $750 million that was originally budgeted for the Helix upgrade… the three airframes on offer to the UK are… the youngest KC-135s in the U.S. fleet; have already been updated with modern CFM56 turbofans and cockpit avionics; and are good for service until 2045… AIN understands that U.S. officials have assured the MoD that unique British requirements and sensors-such as QinetiQ’s Tigershark communications intelligence (COMINT) system – could be incorporated in the three Rivet Joints for the RAF. This and other British technology might also find a place on the larger U.S. fleet, sources told AIN. An informed U.S. source also addressed British concerns that the Rivet Joint system concentrates on COMINT at the expense of electronic intelligence (ELINT). He said… “they will get over it. An Rivet Joint configuration is not as ELINT-oriented, but today’s environment doesn’t really need an ELINT-heavy system.”
Oct 2/08: The US Defense Security Cooperation Agency announces [PDF] the United Kingdom’s formal request to convert 3 USAF KC-135R aircraft into RC-135V/W Rivet Joint aircraft, used for communications relay, electronic surveillance, and related tasks. The order would also include 3 APX-119 Identification Friend or Foe Systems, 3 LN-100GT Inertial Reference Units, 5 Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (Link 16) terminals, 18 ARC-210 Radios and 28 ARC-210 Radio control heads, plus modification kits, integration and installation, Ground Distributed Processing Station, Modular Processing System, Airborne Capability Extension System, mission trainer, tools and test equipment, spare and repair parts, and other forms of support.
The estimated cost is $1.068 billion. DSCA adds:
“The United Kingdom’s troops are deployed in support of Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, where U.S. assets currently provide this proposed capability. By acquiring this capability, the United Kingdom will be able to provide the same level of protection for its own forces and those of the United States.”
If a future Rivet Joint contract does mean the loss of Project HELIX, L-3 still comes out ahead. They are the Rivet Joint’s principal contractor, and L3 Communications of Greenville, TX would perform these conversions.
The re-engined KC-135Rs (related to Boeing’s 707s) will fit in with Britain’s E-3D Sentry AWACS fleet, which uses the same airframe and already has a comprehensive through-life support program. As such, they present no maintenance and support issues for Britain.
DSCA: 3 RC-135V/W
Britain did have other options besides the RC-135V/W.
The RAF recently inducted its ultra-modern ASTOR Sentinel R1 aircraft into service, which uses a modified Bombardier Global Express long-range business jet to provide outstanding long-range ground surveillance and command and control capabilities. The same platform could have been modified to perform the SIGINT/ELINT role, and in fact Lockheed Martin had proposed this very combination for the USA’s canceled and recently restarted ACS SIGINT/ELINT aircraft program.
The difference between the ASTOR ELINT and the RC-135V/W Rivet Joint comes down to development costs and known capabilities. A new version of the Sentinel R1 would require a full design and integration phase, starting from zero, with all of the attendant risks. Capabilities might be very high with the approach, and operating costs would be lower; but problems could also arise with integration, and the airframe is much smaller than the Rivet Joint’s 707-related base airframe.
When development costs and potential overruns are added to the likely purchase costs, Britain appears to have concluded that the RC-135V/W was its best option. It, too, offered platform commonality with RAF aircraft (E-3D), plus precisely known capabilities and purchase costs, the benefits of joint operation with the USA from common bases like Diego Garcia, and a partner who will finance the R&D needed for future upgrades. The final MoU even went a step further. A joint maintenance agreement made British firms eligible to participate in future technology upgrades for USAF and RAF aircraft.
Neither a modified ASTOR Sentinel R1, nor Britain’s existing Nimrod R1 fleet, can offer them all of those things.
The March 2010 agreement made Britain’s choice clear, and the July 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review eliminated all other options. The new Sentinel R1 fleet will now be retired at the end of Afghan operations around 2014, and the Nimrods will all be phased out by 2011.