RAF RC-135W Rivet Joint
RAF RC-135W Rivet Joint (@ UK MOD Crown Copyright 2021 / Sgt Nicholas Howe RAF)

Royal Air Force RC-135W intelligence gathering aircraft joins large-scale US exercise in Europe

An RAF Waddington-based intelligence gathering aircraft has taken part in a major US-led demonstration exercise in Europe with other European NATO Allies.

An RC-135W Rivet Joint aircraft from 51 Squadron, which is part of the RAF’s Intelligence Surveillance Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance Force, took part in the exercise.  The Rivet Joint aircraft joined other aircraft from the US Air Force, US Navy, and The Royal Netherlands Air Force to conduct two exercise scenarios.

The US-led exercise is designed to test and demonstrate the ability of the US forces and their NATO allies, including the UK, to integrate the command-and-control procedures needed to work together.  The US have designated this exercise as a ‘Joint All-Domain Command and Control Demonstration’ activity, meaning that the activities are aimed at showing that US and NATO Allies are able to integrate Air, Maritime, Land, Cyber and Space activities into a coordinated exercise to rehearse possible future operations.

General Jeff Harrigian, the United States Air Forces in Europe commander, said: “Conducting a complex and real-world focused Joint All-Domain Command and Control Demonstration allowed our joint and allied team to find areas where we can innovate with systems we already have and also to identify areas where our warfighters need assistance from the Air and Space Forces’ Chief Architect’s Office,

The exercise is a part of the US National Defence Strategy and demonstrated the ability to bring military assets together from NATO allies into the Baltic Sea to generate firepower inside an area that an adversary believes to be protected through anti-access, area denial technology.  A second element of the exercise demonstrated the ability to, defend infrastructure to allow this force projection.

Group Captain Jim Beldon MBE the Deputy Commander of the RAF’s ISTAR Force said: “It is very important to be able to integrate an RAF RC-135W Rivet Joint aircraft into this exercise, which is aimed at testing and developing the Advanced Battle Management System.  This System will merge information from a variety of sources, which enables commanders to react rapidly and decisively in dynamic operational situations.  The RAF’s participation reaffirms the UK’s relationships with the United States Air Force and our NATO Allies.

Royal Air Force RC-135W Rivet Joint

RC-135W Rivet Joint is a dedicated electronic surveillance aircraft that can be employed in all theatres on strategic and tactical missions. Its sensors ‘soak up’ electronic emissions from communications, radar and other systems. RC-135W Rivet Joint employs multidiscipline Weapons System Officer (WSO) and Weapons System Operator (WSOp) specialists whose mission is to survey elements of the electromagnetic spectrum in order to derive intelligence for commanders.

Developed under Boeing’s Model 739 series, the first of a long line of RC-135 variants was ordered in 1962.  This photographic reconnaissance RC-135A entered service during the mid-1960s, followed by the first of the electronic intelligence gatherers, the RC-135B.  The precedent for modifying KC airframes to RC standard was set in 1972, with the conversion of three KC-135As as RC-135Ds for the Rivet Brass mission.  All subsequent RC variants were produced by conversion/upgrade, mostly from C, KC and RC standards, culminating in the RC-135V and RC-135W, operated under the Rivet Joint codename that has become internationally, and officially recognised in USAF parlance, as the type’s name.

In June 2011, 51 Sqn flew the final BAe Nimrod R.Mk 1 sortie of its 37-year association with the type. Plans were under way for the aircraft’s replacement under a project known as Airseeker, which had begun the previous March.  It envisaged the acquisition of three RC-135W Rivet Joint aircraft for delivery from 2013.  The machines were to be converted from USAF KC-135R airframes and L-3 Communications in Greenville, Texas was chosen to perform the work as the USAF’s experienced Rivet Joint contractor.  The work began in March 2011.

Royal Air Force RC-135W Rivet Joint

On November 12, 2013, No. 51 Sqn took delivery of the UK’s first Rivet Joint, operating its maiden operational sortie on May 23, 2014.  The second aircraft arrived in August 2015 and the third on June 8, 2017.  For the purposes of sensor and system upgrades, the trio are considered an extension of the USAF Rivet Joint fleet, ensuring they remain at the cutting edge of capability.

Rivet Joint has been deployed extensively for Operation Shader and on other operational taskings.  It had been formally named Airseeker, but is almost universally known in service as the RC-135W Rivet Joint.

Photo credits: UK MOD Crown Copyright 2021 / SAC James Skerrett RAF; Sgt Nicholas Howe RAF