Tag Archives: Offutt Air Force Base

Wanna Know If A New North Korean Missile Test Is About To Take Place? Look For This U.S. Aircraft Online…

You can monitor online the U.S. RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft used to track ballistic missiles reentry vehicles and warheads during the final phase of flight.

Early in the morning on Jul. 4, North Korea successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time.

The ICBM, referred to as Hwasong-14, reached a height of 2,802 kilometers, according to the state-run Korea Central Television (KCTV). The missile was launched from Panghyon, in North Pyongan province, and flew into waters east of the Korean Peninsula after traveling for about 930 kilometers.

The latest missile launch, as well as the previous ones, was almost certainly monitored by the U.S. Forces deployed to the region, using a variety of aerial, ground-based, sea-going assets.

The U.S. Air Force relies on its small contingent of RC-135S Cobra Ball missile tracking aircraft. Based at Offutt Air Force Base, outside Omaha, Nebraska, and  flown by the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, these intelligence gathering aircraft are often deployed where needed to track ballistic missiles reentry vehicles and warheads during the final phase of flight. The aircraft is equipped with a powerful radar array on the starboard side of the fuselage, just aft of the cockpit. Several optical quality windows are mounted on the starboard side as well, allowing infrared and visible spectrum cameras to record the warheads during their final moments of flight. A distinctive feature of the Cobra Ball is the black low-glare paint used on the starboard wing, to improve image quality and prevent glare during photography.

A Cobra Ball taking off from Kadena on May 31, 2016 (screengrab from YT video by okuchan2006)

Unsurprisingly, two Cobra Ball aircraft  (61-2662 and 61-2663) are currently deployed to Yokota Air Base, Japan, from where it is launched when there are signs of an imminent North Korean test. What is far more surprising is the fact that, in spite of their important role, RC-135S aircraft are among the military planes that can be tracked online by exploiting the signals broadcast by their Mode S/ADS-B transponders.

By observing the activities of the RC-135S in Japan you may have a pretty clear idea of what is happening or about to happen in North Korea. For instance, last night, the fact that the Cobra Ball was airborne from Yokota might suggest that the U.S. intelligence had detected activities at the launch site and was preparing to monitor the test. This is the reason why I tweeted the following (later confirmed by the news of the ICBM test):

And that was not the first time. Just a coincidence? Most probably not, considered that the Cobra Ball does not fly that much and almost all sorties tracked online in Japan coincided with North Korea’s tests.

Here are some examples:

On Apr. 15, North Korea test-fired an unidentified land-based missile from the naval base in Sinpo. An RC-135S was flying over Japan:

On May 13, North Korea test-fired an intermediate range ballistic missile, from a test site on the country’s West Coast. That launch reached a then-record altitude of around 2,100 kilometers (1,300 miles) and a Cobra Ball was airborne to watch and collect data:

On Jun. 20, a Cobra Ball and WC-135 Constant Phoenix “nuclear sniffer” flew over Japan. It was later unveiled that the spy satellites had detected new activity at the North Korean nuclear test site.

So, if you want to know when Kim Jong Un is preparing for a new test, you may try to look for a Cobra Ball or Constant Phoenix airborne over Japan on ADSBexchange or simply follow some of the Twitter accounts who constantly track such aircraft, such as our friend @CivMilAir who provided us with most of the updates on the RC-135 and WC-135 flights in the area.

 

U.S. Air Force deploys WC-135 “nuclear sniffer” plane to Japan to monitor North Korea’s possible nuke weapons tests

The WC-135C “nuke hunter” has deployed to Okinawa amid raising nuclear tensions with Pyongyang.

The U.S. Air Force WC-135C Constant Phoenix Nuclear explosion “sniffer” has arrived in Japan.

The aircraft was deployed to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, to monitor Kim Jong Un nuke tests, the Nikkei media outlet reported based on talks with a senior Japan Self Defense Forces official.

The aircraft was supposed to arrive at its Forward Operating Base last month but it was forced to perform an emergency landing at Sultan Iskandar Muda airport in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, on its way to Japan, on Mar. 24, following an engine failure.

The two WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft in service today (out of 10 examples operated since the 1960s) are Boeing C-135 transport and support planes derivative belonging to the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron from Offutt Air Force Base, with mission crews staffed by Detachment 1 from the Air Force Technical Applications Center.

The Constant Phoneix, known as the “sniffer” or “weather bird” by its crews, can carry up to 33 personnel.

Constant Phoenix flies in direct support of the U.S. Atomic Energy Detection System, a global network of nuclear detection sensors that monitor underground, underwater, space-based or atmospheric events. As the sole agency in the Department of Defense tasked with this mission, AFTAC’s role in nuclear event detection is critical to senior decision makers in the U.S. government, says the Air Force.

“Our aircraft is equipped with external flow devices that allow us to collect airborne particulate on filter paper and a compressor system for whole air samples,” said Tech. Sgt. Matthew Wilkens, a 9S100 and airborne operations section chief in a recent release. “The particulate samples are collected using a device that works like an old Wurlitzer jukebox. An arm grabs the paper from its slot and moves it to the exterior of the fuselage. After exposure, it is returned to the filter magazine where a new paper is selected for use. It’s a simple, yet very effective, concept.”

Effluent gasses are gathered by two scoops on the sides of the fuselage, which in turn trap fallout particles on filters. The mission crews have the ability to analyze the fallout residue in real-time, helping to confirm the presence of nuclear fallout and possibly determine the characteristics of the warhead involved.

This is not the first time the aircraft is moved close to the Korean peninsula in anticipation of Kim Jong Un rocket launches; moreover, the WC-135 has already been deployed to Japan back in 2011, when it was used to track radioactive activity around Fukushima following, a type of mission the aircraft had already flown in 1986 following the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in the Soviet Union.

The aircraft 62-3582 has recently completed a “tour” in Europe, arriving on Feb. 17, 2017 and conducting several missions both in the Barents Sea area and in the Mediterranean Sea until mid March. The pretty rare deployment to RAF Mildenhall, UK, amid raising concern for an alleged spike in Iodine levels around Norway, fueled speculations that the U.S. had sent the detection aircraft to investigate the reasons behind the radioactive levels detected in northern Europe at the beginning of January.

However, the “nuke hunter” plane was on a “pre-planned rotational deployment scheduled in advance,” according to the Air Force spokeswoman Erika Yepsen.

This time, with a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group heading to the Korean Peninsula, there is no doubt as to the aim of the deployment of the “sniffer” to Japan.

Image credit: Ken H / @chippyho via Wiki Commons

Salva

U.S. Air Force deploys WC-135 nuclear sniffer aircraft to UK as spike of radioactive Iodine levels is detected in Europe

The USAF WC-135C Constant Phoenix might be investigating a spike in radioactive levels in Norway. Someone speculates the release of this radionuclide could be the effect of a Russian nuclear test.

On Feb. 17, 2017, U.S. Air Force WC-135C Constant Phoenix Nuclear explosion “sniffer,” serial number 62-3582, using radio callsign “Cobra 55” deployed to RAF Mildenhall, UK.

As we have already reported the WC-135 is a derivative of the Boeing C-135 transport and support plane. Two of these aircraft are in service today out of the ten examples operated since 1963. The aircraft are flown by flight crews from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron from Offutt Air Force Base while mission crews are staffed by Detachment 1 from the Air Force Technical Applications Center.

The WC-135, known as the “sniffer” or “weather bird” by its crews, can carry up to 33 personnel. However, crew compliments are kept to a minimum during mission flights in order to lessen levels of radioactive exposure.

Effluent gasses are gathered by two scoops on the sides of the fuselage, which in turn trap fallout particles on filters. The mission crews have the ability to analyze the fallout residue in real-time, helping to confirm the presence of nuclear fallout and possibly determine the characteristics of the warhead involved.

Along with monitoring nuke testing, the WC-135 is used to track radioactive activity as happened after the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in the Soviet Union in 1986 and Fukushima incident back in 2011.

One of these aircraft was deployed near North Korea in anticipation of Kim Jong Un rocket launches then was spotted transiting the UK airspace in August 2013 raising speculations it was used in Syria thanks to the ability to detect chemical substances down wind from the attack area days, or weeks after they were dispersed.

Although they cross the European airspace every now and then, their deployment in the Old Continent is somehow rare. As of yet, there has been no official statement from the U.S. military about the reasons why such nuclear research aircraft was deployed there. However, many sources suggest the aircraft was tasked with investigating the spike in Iodine levels detected in northern Europe since the beginning of January.

Iodine-131 (131I), a radionuclide of anthropogenic origin, has recently been detected in tiny amounts in the ground-level atmosphere in Europe. The preliminary report states it was first found during week 2 of January 2017 in northern Norway. Iodine-131 was also detected in Finland, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, France and Spain, until the end of January.

However, no one seems to know the reason behind the released Iodine-131. Along with nuclear power plants, the isotope is also widely used in medicine and its presence in the air could be the effect of several different incidents.

Or, as someone speculates, it could have been the side effect of a test of a new nuclear warhead in Russia: an unlikely (considered the ability to detect nuke tests through satellites and seismic detectors) violation of Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Maybe the WC-135 will help authorities find out the origin of the Iodine-131.

Salva

Salva

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.”

Salva

Salva

Quick thinking saved a USAF RC-135 and its 27 crew members after fire erupted during takeoff roll

Disaster averted at Offut Air Force Base last April.

On Apr. 30 2015, RC-135V Rivet Joint, 64-14848, belonging to the 343rd Reconnaissance Squadron, 55th Wing, suffered a major incident at Offutt AFB, Nebraska.

As the aircraft, using radio callsign “Snoop 71,” began the take off roll to start its mission in support of a Special Operations training exercise, fire erupted behind the galley.

Described by one crew member as a “flamethrower”, the fire quickly filled the intelligence gathering plane with dense smoke and burned a hole in the aft fuselage. The aircraft commander (on his first flight, no less) quickly stopped the airplane and the crew egressed as fire fighters extinguished the blaze.

Total damage to the Rivet Joint: 62.4 million USD.

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, told The Aviationist that the plane very likely would have crashed if it became airborne; the quick reaction by the “baby aircraft commander” made a successful evacuation possible in less than half a minute since the pilot decided to abort takeoff.

“But if we took off – I mean, I don’t know how fast we could have emergency landed I mean – I know it’s quick but a few more minutes stuck on the jet not even able to start egressing would have ya know made it a lot different. So I feel really lucky that we didn’t take off, honestly. I’m also really glad that like no one got seriously injured,” a crew members told to investigators according to the 1,341 report on the mishap obtained by Omaha.com and made available here.

RC135 incident

Investigators were unable to determine the fire’s ignition source, but found that it was fanned by a faulty oxygen system that had been improperly serviced during the airplane’s last depot maintenance by L-3 Communications in Greenville, Texas.

The final report noted that L-3’s quality control failed to follow established procedures, and that L-3 installed used instead of new parts. Fleet-wide inspections are underway.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force