The brand new RAF Rivet Joint aircraft “fried” Daesh communications with massive jamming attack in Libya

May 19 2016 - 22 Comments

A British Special Operation led by a “brand new” RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft of the Royal Air Force has shut down ISIS comms in Libya recently.

UK special forces have recently carried out “black ops” attacks against Daesh stronghold of Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast, using Electronic Warfare to shut down ISIS communication network in Libya.

The “highly sophisticated” jamming strikes were led by a RAF RC-135W “Airseeker,” one of the three ex-USAF KC-135 tanker converted starting back in 2011 by L-3IS in Greenville, Texas, at a cost of around 650 million GBP (950M USD).

Indeed, the operators aboard the British Rivet Joint first tuned into the militants preferred frequencies and then used the high-powered transmitters to broadcast interference on the same wavelengths, drowning out the enemy’s conversations on the battlefield, according to a source who talked to the Daily Mail.

Whilst the RC-135 jammed the Daesh frequencies from off the Libyan coasts, aboard HMS Enterprise, a GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters which is the centre for UK’s Signal Intelligence – SIGINT – activities) cyber-warfare team gauged the response to last week’s jamming strike by monitoring exchanges online between IS leaders – who are believed to be in command of up to 6,000 jihadists in Libya.

The defense source told the Daily Mail that the IS fighters “were very angry and couldn’t understand what had gone wrong. We jammed the frequencies for 40 minutes – long enough to prove the capability, but not so long that IS realized what was happening.”

The RC-135W is an intelligence gathering plane that usually monitors communications: the aircraft is equipped with all sorts of antennae and sensors, to eavesdrop enemy signals, transmissions, detect frequencies used by radio and radars and pinpoint sites of interest, mobile stations, SAM batteries, etc.

But, according to the source it also features active EW capabilities and the aircrews “occasionally use jamming strikes to spread confusion among their ranks at vital times.”

ZZ664_RC-135W_RAF_Mildenhall_2016_1

The United Kingdom are the only Rivet Joint operator in the world outside the United States.

The first of three Boeing KC-135R Stratotankers (64-14833) scheduled to be converted to RC-135W configuration for the Royal Air Force arrived at prime contractor L-3 Communications’ facility at Majors Field, Greenville, Texas in December 2010.

British pilots, navigators, electronic warfare officers, intelligence operators and airborne maintenance technicians from No. 51 Squadron all began training at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, in January 2011 undertaking around 2000 sorties and around 35,000 flying hours.

In March 2011 the remaining two Nimrod R.1s that provided electronic intelligence with No.51 Squadron at RAF Waddington were retired from service leaving a three-year gap of having nothing in the UK’s ISR mission until the UK received their first RC-135W ZZ664 in December 2013. ZZ664 was deployed to the middle East in April 2015 and it was expected it would be deployed for around 6 months.

The Second RC-135W Airseeker ZZ665 (ex-USAF/64-14838) was delivered direct from L-3 Communications’ facility in Texas to RAF Mildenhall as ‘SAME 40’ on September 13th 2015. Both RC-135Ws would normally be based at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire but due to continued runway work there the unit is currently flying from RAF Mildenhall when not deployed on operations.

The third and final RC-135W Airseeker (ZZ666) is currently being converted from KC-135R (64-14840) to RC-135W configuration and is due to be delivered to the RAF by 2018.”

The images in this post were taken by photographer Ashley Wallace. They depict RC-135W ZZ664 from No.51 Squadron taxiing to runway 29 at RAF Mildenhall for departure using the callsign ‘DRAGNET 41” on a training mission on Feb. 19, 2016, wearing special tail markings to celebrate the 100th anniversary of No. 51 Squadron.

ZZ664_RC-135W_RAF_Mildenhall_2016

All images by Ashley Wallace (who has also contributed to this post)

Update: we investigated the Rivet Joint (RJ) jamming capability claimed by the English tabloid’s source with the help of Robert Hopkins, III, a former RC-135 aircraft commander who flew the S, U, V, W, and X models in the 1980s and 1990s, and author of a book on the type.

Here’s his answer:

“After speaking with several of my contacts in the RC community, I think you may wish to consider the story of the Airseeker as a jammer to be, as the TV show Mythbusters says: BUSTED.

Jamming requires massive amounts of power and power requires massive amounts space and weight, which is just not available on the RJ. Buzzing the spectrum hinders simultaneous collection, even on adjacent frequencies, so it doesn’t make sense for both the target and the buzzer to be blind during the process. Part of the reason the RCs have operated with minimal fuss in airspace adjacent to Russia and China is that they are only receiving, not broadcasting. Remember the canard they were equipped with SLAR in the cheeks? Yeah, never happened but every magazine reported it as such for years—was the ASD-1 and later AEELS. If the RJ had a jamming feature the Russians and Chinese would be all over that and they would go public and ugly early.

 

My best guess, in the absence of the MoD official owning up, is that the Airseeker located the desired frequencies and some other source (air, ground, no matter) did the jamming while the Airseeker listened to the chaos.”

Salva

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  • Jerry Hatfield

    Finally gave up their mighty Nimrod?

    • Jeff

      Yes, more than five years ago…just like the article says.

  • Marco

    Why did they corvert 50 years old air-frames (KC-135), that are incidentally tagged by the US forces as “approaching the end of their service life and badly requiring replacement” (in the form of KC-46)? If it was coming in the pennies I could understand, but here we are talking about nearly 1 billion USD for three planes…
    The ones asking, funding and spending defense budgets all over the world must be some kind of funny people. Or just a bunch of corrupts.

    • E1-Kabong

      RC-135…..KC-135…..

    • Gyoz

      Totally agree it puzzle me too

    • AstroNautilus

      1) do you think a converted KC –> RC-135 has logged the same hours as a classic tanker-only KC-135 during its lifetime? Those were the “youngest” airframe in USAF inventory.
      2) the alternative was converting a GLEX (just like the Astor) to a sigint/elint role: this means lot of money and time to be spent on: development, testing, flying testing, training to IOC, deployment to theater (all not achievable in 4 years, cost and time of development are not usually fixed but tend to grow, you should know that)
      3) RC-135 was a “on-the-shelf product” , less buy-to-deployment time , almost certain amount of money to spend

      Go do their job if you think you can decide and spend money in a better way

      • Marco

        I love when people are ready to defend out-of-control government spending when they got some interest into it.

        They are wasting 1 damned billion USD of taxes on 3 piece-of-crap air-frames that would not be accepted by the wildest Moldovan based air freight company for sick of the safety of the crew and you still find ways to defend this decision?

        And… I love when people challenge and say “go and do their job…” damn!, I’d go right now if they were ready to get a guy without any “connection” in the decision making spot. Guess what?

        You can bet the vast majority of mr no-one-no-connection would love to apply to that “job” (btw there is something called “elections” and “screening by a party” to just sniff that seat from miles away)

        • Bart

          Marco… the vast majority of the price tag was in the “back end” equipment… they went with the 135 because it HAS been in service 50plus years and its reliability is proven… they expext the airflame to continue in service for another 20 or so years. Long enough for the tanker world to work out the bugs in the kc46. Maintenance costs are even relatively low because there are so many of the airframes around, that parts are still relativily abundant. There is a reason that Tankers get the new airframe upgrades before recon jets… its simple. There are more of them… you always fill up the tanker bills first.. work out all the bugs and then mod them to operational jets. When you only have 3 birds, you need to be able to rely on them to fly. If a tanker doesn’t fly, well, you go on ro the next one. If a recon jet doesn’t fly. Well, you might actually lose lives if they were relying on the info that jet was supposed to supply…Admittedly, the price tag is going up for mx, the older the aircraft gets, however, as compared to the cost of trying to fit the EW package on a brand new airframe??? I’d hazard a double plus the price each… and in 20 years, who knows how the 46 is going to hold up? Anyway, RAF got the airframes for a steal relativly speaking I’m sure. Are you in the air craft business??? What I’m telling you is just common sense stuff that any aircraft mechanic would tell you.

        • Jeff

          You said 21 days ago that you’d “go right now”. Have you signed up at the nearest recruiting office yet?

    • TJ

      The UK wanted to minimize the capability gap after the Nimrod R.1 was retired early. The alternative would have taken far too long to get into service. Any other platform would have taken years of development and systems testing. What the UK got with the RC-135 was a tried and tested package that is integrated with the US SIGINT/ELINT system. Remember that UK/US intelligence systems is hand in glove. The RC-135 will still be in USAF service for decades to come and the UK benefit from that support system. It was the capability gap that would have really impacted on the UK and especially on customers such as GCHQ. Without the RC-135 51 Squadron aircrew would have lost all that capability and vast wealth of experience that they bring to the table. For the UK it was imperative that the Nimrod R.1 was replaced quickly hence the RC-135 buy. It was hoped that the Nimrod R.1 could have been operated until 2025 but with the demise of the Nimrod MR2 fleet that option was not on the cards.

    • Jeff

      Because all the added equipment has already been thoroughly tested and proven with that airframe and certified for use. Installing receiving and transmitting antennas in an aircraft involved all kinds of testing and often results in major problems to solve before it all works together. Using a different airframe would be reinventing the wheel at considerably more cost and a much longer schedule. Doing it the way they did saved a LOT of time and a LOT of money.

  • sferrin

    “A defense source told the Daily Mail
    that the IS fighters “were very angry and couldn’t understand what had
    gone wrong. We jammed the frequencies for 40 minutes – long enough to
    prove the capability, but not so long that IS realized what was
    happening.””

    Well I guess you let the cat out of the bag now didn’t you?

    • Joe Maxwell

      Think maybe that cat was *deliberately* let out of the bag?

      • sferrin

        To what end? All it’s done is tip our hand. Now they’ll have contingencies for when cellphones aren’t available.

    • InklingBooks

      Agreed. We live in a far different world than WWII, when a Chicago newspaper ‘leaked’ that we’d broken a key Japanese code but that news story never reached Japan. Now ISIS can easily get this news online.

      I also doubt these ISIS fighters were so stupid they didn’t realize they were being jammed. Did these Brits really believe that 40 minutes of jamming would go undetected but 45 minutes might not?

      Finally, China has glutted the international market with cheap VHF/UHF radios that can operate over a wide spectrum. Jammed on one frequency, ISIS and their kin can simply shift to another. Here’s an example at $34:

      http://www.amazon.com/Warranty-Dual-Band-Improved-Stronger-Enhanced/dp/B00HX03AMA

      That takes care of short-range communication. In the next few years we will see something similar with HF radios that offer a longer range and at dirt-cheap prices. The Chinese company that made that handheld just bought a major maker of HF gear:

      “The rumored pricing suggests BaoFeng intends to dominate the HF Transceiver market in a similar fashion that they have supplanted the VHF and UHF handheld world.”

      http://qrznow.com/baofeng-buys-tokyo-high-power-labs/

      For HF, “all band” generally means that, with a few tweaks the transceiver will operate anywhere from 3-30 MHz and perhaps as high as 54 MHz. Those 250 & 400-watt BaoFeng HF radios could cover all or most of Libya. Add an automatic antenna tuner, and jumping around to avoid jamming would be easy.

      I do hope the U.S. and U.K. military aren’t oblivious to all that is happening.

      –Mike Perry, KE7NV/4

  • Andre

    Oh, I thought only the Russians could do that!

  • su34

    The jihadis must be really dumb not to notice in a few minutes at most
    that “suddenly” the noise floor spiked up on their favorite channels –
    if the brits were “clever” enough to modulate the carrier with
    noise/pulses – in their simple NBFM handhelds (also easily
    eavesdropped). Now they’re encouraged to invest in more reliable
    communication means, more difficult to intercept, and jam, or simply to
    make up an unpredictable frequency comms time-chart, and impose stricter radio
    discipline. A really “smart” move… but westerners must simply brag
    about their new expensive toys.

    • sferrin

      Like Putina does with his “unpossible to intercept” ballistic missiles? (That, for some reason, are so good he’s continually whining about US missile defenses in Europe “making Russia vulnerable”.)

    • Marco

      Well, it’s just advertisement about capabilities, just like the Russians deploying cruise missiles, strategic bombers and all the other goodies we saw flying around in the Syrian air show. Both the West and Russians are bragging around capabilities that have little to no use in the current scenario. The reality is, yeah, some IS fighter got upset since his mobile phone did not work… Did it disrupt any critical? NO, since IS is not a net-centric fighting force… most probably, he failed to communicate to Abu-Abdullah that the tea was ready.

      Here you get British forces saying they “critically disrupted IS communication capabilities and…” blah blah blah… Yeah Yeah… just the same BS like how critical the F-22 role over Syria was… yeah yeah critical indeed… sure.

      The fact is, those tools are just way too advanced to fight a real world enemy like the IS. Would they matter against a “superpower grade” enemy? Yes of course. Do they matter here? Not much, if any.

      Guess why the IS is holding position for the last 2 years and half, holding against the whole world? Because all this “critical stuff” ended up not being critical at all, actually missing the target of defeating an enemy who is fighting its war at a totally different (lower) level. An AK-47 in the hands of a Kurdish (or Regime) infantry rifle man matters much more than any British RC-135 or American F-22 or Russian Tu-160 bomber of this world.

      • Jeff

        Despite your pro-ISIS nonsense, they’ve actually lost territory and fighters are abandoning them in droves. They are replacing many of them, but new fighters with no experience don’t really replace experienced ones for quite a while. Of course, you could look up the facts, but they’d just get in the way of your pre-conceived rant, wouldn’t they?

  • Ray Higgins

    I live near L3 Integrated Systems Greenville, Texas Division. For years I have maintained that the sudden increase in Middle Eastern families in the area is no coincidence. I doubt a light bulb is changed at the plant that ALL of our enemies don’t know about … sickening !

  • Hagen vanTronje

    “occasionally use jamming strikes to spread confusion among their ranks at vital times.”
    That’s very unsporting ! please remember that the ragheads are only just getting used to radio telephones so it is quite cruel of you to jam them like this !