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British RC-135W Air Seeker Crews in Training

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The first British crewmembers to fly the RC-135V/W Rivet Joint signals intelligence aircraft arrived at the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, on January 11.The first of three Boeing KC-135R Stratotankers scheduled to be converted to RC-135Ws for the Royal Air Force arrived at prime contractor L3 Communications’ U.S. factory last December.

The initial group of British pilots, navigators, electronic warfare officers, intelligence operators and airborne maintenance technicians from No. 51 Squadron at RAF Waddington are now training at Offutt. Wing Commander Gary Crosby, who is scheduled to take command of No. 51 in June, is part of the group. The 3328th Combat Training Squadron, a component of the 55th Wing, will provide training to the British.

Britain’s aircraft will be known as RC-135W Air Seekers. They will be powered by four 21,600-pound thrust CFM International F108-CF-201 (CFM-56) high bypass turbofan engines and will have a gross weight of around 173,000 pounds. They have been assigned these RAF serial numbers:

ZZ664 (KC-135R 64-14833 c/n 18773)

ZZ665 (KC-135R 64-14838 c/n 18778)

ZZ666 (KC-135R 64-14840 c/n 18780)

British leaders acknowledge that the RC-135W is a more modest intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) solution than they had once hoped for. The British aircraft won’t use the ambitious Helix collection system that had once been envisioned for a now-cancelled version of the Nimrod. The first Air Seeker won’t be fully operational until 2014 and the third in 2018, leaving a gap following retirement of the RAF’s two Nimrod R.1Ps. Moreover, both British and American leaders see a longer-term problem: In a modern “peer” conflict fought at high speed and long range, “slow mover” platforms like the RC-135 could be too vulnerable to be effective. A source close to the program said that the RC-135 is “a superb aeroplane” and that for the immediate future, at least, is “what we can afford.”

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...