Figures obtained by a Freedom of Information request show the number of sorties by British RC-135 Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft go from 6 per month in December to a peak of 18 per month when Russia invaded Ukraine.
The figures are no surprise given the massive effort underway by NATO and partner nations to collect intelligence on the invasion.
UPDATE – The headline of this article has been changed. As you can see from the URL, I incorrectly claimed that the number of flights had doubled when it, in fact, had tripled from Christmas.
I asked the Ministry of Defence about the total number of sorties between November last year and June this year, the information is as follows.
I also asked about the cost to the UK of using American aircraft to refuel these aircraft as Britain doesn’t operate an aircraft with the correct refuelling system able to refuel the RC-135s.
“As close allies, a range of UK and US aircraft types routinely refuel from the other nations’ tanker aircraft, but charges raised are not calculated by specific aircraft fleets. Aircraft from both nations are refuelled by reciprocal arrangements under a memorandum of understanding, which predates the introduction of the RC-135 Rivet Joint into RAF service and covers a range of aircraft types.
For example, RAF Voyagers regularly refuel US Navy fighters, and RAF Typhoons are regularly refuelled by USAF KC-10 drogue pods in a similar manner on combined operations. For ease of administration, the overall “balance” of total fuel costs between the two nations and across all fleets is reconciled and invoiced several times a year, which reduces the number of individual transactions required. We do not, therefore, hold full reimbursement figures specific to the RC-135 Rivet Joint.”
As of this week, British RC-135 electronic surveillance aircraft continue to operate over the Black Sea near Ukraine, keeping an eye on Russian forces.
As demonstrated by the above figures, the UK has been increasing the frequency of such flights in order to gather intelligence with US aircraft also present.
As we need to post this each time, here’s the usual disclaimer. This isn’t a new occurrence, in fact, it is quite routine. The UK has long been gathering intelligence about Russian forces since long before the invasion of Ukraine and it should be noted that these flights are designed to be visible so that the public and Russia know they’re happening. If it were a secret, I would not know. Also, for those remarking ‘this isn’t new’, that’s right but people only know this often happens because it is reported often.
British surveillance aircraft being over the area isn’t unusual but we are seeing a significant increase in the frequency of the flights over the last few months for obvious reasons.
What does the RC-135W do?
According to the Royal Air Force website, the 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.”
The Royal Air Force say that 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.
The UK operates three of these aircraft.