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UK Will Acquire Its Own RC-135 Rivet Joints

The Boeing RC-135V/W Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft – using the same airframe as the KC-135 Stratotanker – is a familiar sight at overseas bases and along the borders of countries the United States wants to learn more about. Now, plans are shaping up for Britain’s Royal Air Force to have its own RC-135Ws, manned by British crews and flying in British colors.

The plan for the RAF to operate three Rivet Joints was finalized in a March 19, 2010, Anglo-American agreement. The plan remains in effect despite Britain’s recently announced defense cuts that include retirement by March 2011 of the remaining two Nimrod R.1s (of three built) that have been providing electronic intelligence (ELINT) with No. 51 Squadron in Afghanistan.

Britain is also canceling nine Nimrod MRA.4 maritime reconnaissance aircraft. The Nimrod MRA.4, only one of which has flown, has been plagued by delays, cost overruns, and contract re-negotiations. It was an inevitable victim of Britain’s recent Strategic Defence and Security Review As a result of that review, Britain is cutting its $59 billion defense budget by 8 percent in real terms over four years to address budget deficits. The defense review also kills a uniquely British airborne intelligence collection system intended for the Nimrod R.1 and known as Helix.

The hog-nosed RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft,  with its extensive antennae array, provides vital real-time battle management information to mission planners, commanders, and warfighters. The aircraft is a high-altitude version of the C-135, which is a militarized version of the Boeing 707. The Rivet Joint aircraft, owned and operated by the 55th Wing, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., provides direct, near real-time reconnaissance information and electronic warfare support to theater commanders and combat forces.  U.S. Air Force photo.

Now, three former KC-135R Stratotankers are being pulled out of storage and modified by L-3 Systems in Greenville, Texas at a reported cost of $350 million each.

The aircraft will be modified with APX-119 Identification Friend or Foe Systems, LN-100GT Inertial Reference Units, Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (Link 16) terminals, ARC-210 radios and ARC-210 radio control heads. The U.S.-U.K. deal includes 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 support. It has not been announced whether the RAF Rivet Joints will be modified with refueling probes to make them compatible with British tankers, which use only the probe-and-drogue refueling system. The RAF’s E-3D Sentry airborne warning planes have both refueling probes and receptacles for the U.S. flying boom refueling system.

The three modified aircraft, once fitted out as RC-135s, will join the RAF beginning in 2014. During the gap between retirement of the Nimrod R.1 and arrival of the first RC-135, British crewmembers will serve aboard U. S. Rivet Joints. Four RAF crews will soon begin Rivet Joint Training with the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.


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