Tag Archives: Airseeker

Has An RC-135U Combat Sent Signal Intelligence Aircraft “Covered” The Two F-35A Stealth Jets Visiting Estonia?

Yesterday two USAF F-35A stealth aircraft performed a quick visit to Estonia. But their mission to the Baltic region was probably not only supported by a KC-135: an RC-135U and two RC-135Ws flew to the area while the 5th Gen. jets were there.

On Apr. 25, two U.S. Air Force F-35As belonging to the 34th Fighter Squadron, from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, deployed to the UK since mid April, flew from RAF Lakenheath, UK, to Ämari, Estonia.

Based on the information gathered by aircraft spotters, airband listeners and ADS-B monitors, who tracked the mission to Estonia of the F-35s, the two 5th generation multirole combat aircraft , 14-5102 and 14-5094, using radio callsign “Conan 01” and accompanied by “Quid 89”, a 100ARW KC-135 from RAF Mildenhall, departed from RAF Lakenheath at 07.35z.

The trio landed in Estonia shortly before 11.00z and took part in a brief ceremony (at this link you can find some interesting photographs).

Noteworthy, the quick visit to Estonia was “accompanied” by a rather unusual activity of U.S. and British spyplanes in the Baltic region.

In fact, as the F-35s headed towards Amari in formation with their KC-135 tanker, as many as three RC-135s (including a RAF bird) operated in the airspaces over or close to Estonia.

The U.S. Air Force dispatched an RC-135W Rivet Joint 62-4139 “Haiti 79” and an RC-135U Combat Sent 64-14847 “Spool 06” to the Baltic states.

The Rivet Joint positioned off Kaliningrad Oblast, where some of the most active Russian bases in the Baltic region are located, whereas the Combat Sent started a racetrack over Estonia, not far from the border with mainland Russia.

 

Shortly thereafter, even a RAF RC-135W “Airseeker,” one of the three ex-USAF KC-135 tanker converted to the Rivet Joint variant starting back in 2011, from RAF Waddington joined the scene. The British intelligence gathering plane that, just like the American “RJs” 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., maintained a racetrack off Kaliningrad.

RC135W ZZ664 RRR7220 west of Kaliningrad (via @CivMilAir)

At 14.43Z, the two JSFs departed Ämari to return to the UK and shortly thereafter both the U.S. and RAF spyplanes headed back to their homebases.

Although we can’t but speculate here, it appears to be quite likely that the RC-135 missions to the Baltic were somehow related to the deployment of the F-35 so close to the Russian border. In fact, whilst Rivet Joint and Combat Sent aircraft regularly fly to the region and can be daily tracked online as they head towards the international airspace off Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, the presence of three such spyplanes not too far away from one another seems to suggest their missions were coordinated and probably related to something “big” happening there.

And the only “big thing” (Zapad 2017 preparation aside) we are currently aware of is the first presence of the JSF in Estonia. Moreover, not only was the type of racetrack flown by the Combat Sent unusual, but it was also located in a pretty interesting position: east of Ämari, as if the RC-135U, an aircraft designed to collect technical intelligence on adversary radar emitter systems, was there to detect emissions from Russian radars interested in the F-35.

However, there is another possibility: what if the American and British spyplanes were there to deter the Russian from using their radars?

Indeed, whilst three RC-135s flying at the same time in the same area is something unusual, it is quite weird that the three spyplanes had their ADS-B transponder turned on during their missions.

“If they wanted to hide, they would do” says the ADS-B / ModeS tracking enthusiast who runs the popular @CivMilAir and @ADSBTweetBot Twitter feeds. “The daily RC-135s flights over the Middle East very rarely show up and even the daily missions to the Baltics can usually be tracked during their transit to the area of operations, where often the transponder is turned off. That’s why I believe they remained trackable on purpose.”

Spyplanes, including the U-Boat (as the RC-135U Combat Sent is nicknamed in the pilot community), usually operate in “due regard” with transponder switched off, with no radio comms with the ATC control, using the concept of “see and avoid” where the pilot flying is responsible for avoiding all traffic conflicts. Even if RC-135s can be regularly tracked online, they tend to keep a low-profile when reaching the area of operations, turning off the ADS-B to avoid being detected at least by commercial ADS-B receivers like those feeding online flight tracking systems such as Flightradar24.com, PlaneFinder.net or Global ADS Exchange.

On Apr. 25, both RC-135s could tracked throughout their missions suggesting they did purposely broadcast their position for everyone to see, to let everyone know they were there.

Russian spyplanes have done pretty much the same in the past: the Tu-214R, Russia’s most advanced intelligence gathering aircraft deployed to Syria and flew along the border with Ukraine with its transponder turned on. In that case it was a sort of “show of force”; yesterday was likely a way to prevent some interesting details about the F-35 to be gathered by the Russians.

By the way, it’s not the first time U.S. stealth jets flying to the Baltics are directly or undirectly “accompanied” by Rivet Joints: on Apr. 27, 2016, two F-22s deployed to Siauliai Air Base, Lithuania. Supported (so to say) by an RC-135W.

H/T to @CivMilAir, @MIL_Radar, Fighter Control forum

Top image credit: Tim Felce (Airwolfhound) via Wiki Commons

 

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

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.”

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UK’s first RC-135W “Airseeker” intelligence gathering aircraft in service by the end of 2013

UK’s Royal Air Force will have the first of its planned three RC-135W aircraft, named the Airseeker project by the RAF (not clear if the aircraft is to be given that name or it’s just the name of the project) by December 2013.

Flight Global ran an article that padded out a few details on the British purchase of the Rivet-Joint aircraft.

The conversion of the ex-US Air Force KC-135 tankers started back in January 2011. The glass cockpit is well advanced in its installation and the first aircraft is thought to be rolling out for its paint scheme during January 2013, with flight testing and acceptance following soon after.

“A number of aircraft skins have been replaced to deal with corrosion and prepare the aircraft for its service life as an RC-135” UK’s Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) said in an article in its monthly publication “Decider”. “Additional work has included removing the tankers refuelling boom system, installing an air-to-air refuelling receiver system above the the cockpit, and replacing every wire in the aircraft. Mission equipment racks have also been fitted in the rear cabin, Progress in the aircraft is on schedule, with delivery on track for December next year.”

RAF crews have been undertaking training at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska on the RC-135V/W aircraft based there and once qualified on the Rivet Joint initial qualification training will be allowed to fly on the U.S Joint Rivet aircraft until the RAF aircraft are ready for service. The first crews arrived at Offutt during January 2011, therefore may have already qualified to operate the type.

The Airseeker aircraft will be operated by 51 Squadron flying from RAF Waddington, that flew the Nimrod until Jun. 29, 2011, when the last two examples of the SIGINT plane were withdrawn from service.

Richard Clements for TheAviationist.com

Image credit: U.S. Air Force