Tag Archives: Offutt Air Force Base

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.”

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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

 

E-6B Mercury “Doomsday plane” with brand new dome

Several aircraft enthusiasts have pointed out that there is a new dome on the E-6B TACAMO

The U.S. Navy operates a fleet of E-6B TACAMO (“TAke Charge And Move Out”).

The “Mercury” aircraft are extremely important as they are used to relay instructions to the fleet ballistic missile submarines in case of nuclear war but also act as back ups of the four E-4Bs NAOC (National Alternate Operations Center), working as ABNCP (Airborne Command Post) platforms (hence “Doomsday Plane“).

On Feb. 14, Military Radio Comms Expert Allan Stern took a photograph of E-6B TACAMO 164407 landing at Patrick Air Force Base and several people noticed that there is a new dome on the aircraft, clearly visible before the tail.

What’s that new dome used for?

Someone on the MilRadioComs group managed by Stern suggested the new dome looks the same size as the WiFi antennas on commercial aircraft.

Maybe.

For sure the E-6B can do many things: it can perform the so-called Looking Glass mission (mirroring the ground-based C3 center at Offutt AFB and relaying orders), talk to submarines trailing a 26,000 ft wire antenna, launch commands to ICBMs (InterContinental Ballistic Missiles) via Airborne Launch Control System, and perform C3 (Command Control Communication) operations to forces operating in theatre.

For this reason it is equipped with systems that make it capable to communicate on virtually every radio frequency band, on commercial satellites and on the Internet, using also a secure VOIP system.

Most probably the new dome houses a new communication system.

Image credit: Al Stern/MilRadioComms

 

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Enjoy a Guided Tour Inside the E-4B NAOC Doomsday Plane

The E-4B is one of the so-called Doomsday planes.

In the event of a nuclear war, a terrorist attack, an alien invasion or, generally speaking, Armageddon, the U.S. Air Force’s four E-4B planes based at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska will be responsible to keep the U.S. Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other top personalities alive whilst Obama would be on board the Air Force One.

The E-4B is a modified B747-200 that serves as National Airborne Operations Center providing a flying command, control and communications center to direct nuclear (and conventional) forces, by receiving, verifying and relaying EAM (Emergency Action Messages).

One aircraft is usually airborne every 12 hours, with another one ready for departure with a 5-minute notice.  An E-4B always supports Air Force One’s trips abroad. If national command centers on the ground are attacked or unavailable, an E-4B is immediately scrambled.

The following video gives you the opportunity to take a guided tour inside one of these interesting and important planes.

 

H/T to Jonathan Kohn for the heads-up

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

 

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