Two British RC-135 electronic surveillance aircraft, rather than the usual one, are operating over the Black Sea near Ukraine.

The UK has been increasing the frequency of such flights in order to gather intelligence but it’s usually only one British aircraft at a time 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 was a secret, I would not know. Also, for those remarking ‘this isn’t new’, that’s right but people only know this happens often 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, it’s rare for two British aircraft to be up at the one time as the UK only has three of this aircraft type.

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.

Image Airwolfhound, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
George has a degree in Cyber Security from Glasgow Caledonian University and has a keen interest in naval and cyber security matters and has appeared on national radio and television to discuss current events. He also works for the NHS. George is on Twitter at @geoallison
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Rob
Rob
9 days ago

We are working these elderly aircraft very hard. I hope we are planning a replacement.

Last edited 9 days ago by Rob
Mark Franks
Mark Franks
9 days ago
Reply to  Rob

If you keep them flying the less goes wrong with them.

Robert Blay.
Robert Blay.
9 days ago
Reply to  Rob

They are designed to fly a lot. No use sat in a hangar, or looking nice on the ramp at Waddington.

dan
dan
9 days ago
Reply to  Rob

Compared to commercial aircraft these birds don’t have a lot of hours on them. Flight hours degrades an aircraft far more than the actual age of the airframe.

Supportive Bloke
Supportive Bloke
9 days ago
Reply to  dan

There is a balance.

If you leaves something sat about it will degrade. But yes, there is a limit to component and airframe hours.

If a resource is used hard or seen to gift data then it tends to get cut.

ATM Rivet will be delivering solid gold data to the Ukranians.

Ruthe
Ruthe
8 days ago
Reply to  dan

Like some of the old Nimrods that had virtually only initial operations hours when they were scrapped. I had a flight in one over the Irish sea.

Monkey spanker
Monkey spanker
8 days ago
Reply to  Rob

They are old aircraft in years but not in airframe life. I would think the replacement will be brought online as the Americans replace theres. The RAF seem to get the aircraft in the air everyday so must be running ok.
There will be a huge amount of information available about the airframe life, problem areas to watch etc. The Americans have been using the airframes for decades. The 3 the RAF got were the newest KC135 across the fleet and had low hours when bought. Great assets, well done boys and girls.

Monkey spanker
Monkey spanker
8 days ago
Reply to  Monkey spanker

Did a bit of reading. The aircraft support contract is currently to 2035. Planned out of service date has been 2045. Obviously that can change.
The aircraft were bought with 22,000-23,000 hours on them and currently should make it to 70,000 hours. That can possibly be made higher. Will really depend on condition of the airframe when you get nearer that number.
So long service life still to go.

julian1
julian1
8 days ago
Reply to  Rob

they were totally rebuilt. they are new aircraft

Andrew
Andrew
9 days ago

Not being an expert on the subject, but can one of RC-135’s not be temporarily based/make use of a closer NATO airfield, or even Akrotiri in Cyprus which would allow for more time on station and less commuting time back to Waddington?

Richard B
Richard B
9 days ago
Reply to  Andrew

I’m only an interested civilian. I guess the issue of forward deploying a plane in Cyprus is the logistics of moving ground staff and materials. Against that is the increased flight times from the UK which means the planes will need more maintenance. You hope a clever person has done the business case.

On a positive note, the aircrews will be getting plenty of experience in using the equipment.

Andrew Deacon
Andrew Deacon
8 days ago
Reply to  Richard B

Interesting that the RAF is flying Typhoon missions from UK to Poland everyday rather than basing them there.

Aaron L
Aaron L
7 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Deacon

I’d guess it’s to do with being able to avoid the allegations of aggression towards Russia.

It would also mean that the tankers that they fly with would still be available for UK based tasking rather than being forward deployed to Poland and need to fly back to the UK if needed here.

johan
johan
8 days ago
Reply to  Andrew

i think its more to do with he security of the aircraft, and is one of the USA demands when you have access to there snoppy’s,

they trust very few with there updated systems.

JamesD
JamesD
9 days ago

Impressive tempo for 3 aircraft nearly 60 years old

dan
dan
9 days ago
Reply to  JamesD

Remember these birds had the fewest number of hours on them when they were chosen. So they have plenty of life left in them. And no shortage of spare parts.

Nick Cole
Nick Cole
8 days ago

So it overflew Ukrainian airspace. Who or what protected it?

Crabfat
Crabfat
8 days ago
Reply to  Nick Cole

The RC-135s (RAF and US) fly well clear of UKr airspace – about 250 miles south of Odessa and approx 100 miles south of the Crimean coast. Actually just north of the NE/SW civilian air corridor.

The NATO EC-3s fly approx 100 miles from the South Western UKr border.

So both aircraft fly very clear of Ukraine.

Nick Cole
Nick Cole
8 days ago
Reply to  Crabfat

I only asked as the track from the screen print shows it passing over what looks like very much like Ukraine!

Crabfat
Crabfat
8 days ago
Reply to  Nick Cole

Actually, Nick, the aircraft on the print looks about as large as a third of Crimea! If you look at the real-time flights on FlightRadar24 then you can see what I meant by my earlier response. I also (roughly) checked the distances using Google Earth.
Correction also, to my post, the civvy air corridor to the south of Ukraine is NW/SE. You can also see this on FR24. Cheers.

Nick Cole
Nick Cole
8 days ago
Reply to  Crabfat

Obviously, it is only a positional avatar. However the track as shown has it going over Ukraine, which is what I was referring to. The picture may well have been photoshopped but I didn’t have the source original to verify against, hence my question which was intended tongue in cheek!

Crabfat
Crabfat
7 days ago
Reply to  Nick Cole

I did understand that, Nick. No criticsm meant, honest! Best.

Nick Cole
Nick Cole
7 days ago
Reply to  Crabfat

Sometimes difficult to tell the difference between naive and the less than gullible!

Graham
Graham
6 days ago
Reply to  Nick Cole

It’s dated 22 Jan 2022 if you look underneath so a pre-war route, they’ll be flying very different route there now.

Nick Cole
Nick Cole
5 days ago
Reply to  Graham

Yes I know that, but the whole point of my question was a ‘humorous’ observation of where it went and the date etc was irrelevant in that context.

Nick Cole
Nick Cole
5 days ago
Reply to  Graham

For the thread originator to comment on!

Alex
Alex
7 days ago
Reply to  Crabfat

could just look at the date, january 18th

Farouk
Farouk
8 days ago

Anybody able to to explain whats the difference between the Saudi and US and UK planes:

RE-3A-2.jpg
Supportive Bloke
Supportive Bloke
8 days ago
Reply to  Farouk

If I was a guessing man I would say the UK ones are the full fat spec…..

Gunbuster
Gunbuster
8 days ago
Reply to  Farouk

Being Flippant,

The paint scheme…

David Flandry
David Flandry
8 days ago

There area total of 3 of these a/c. Down from about 6.

DMJ
DMJ
8 days ago
Reply to  David Flandry

Not again! We only ever had 3 of the preceding Nimrod R1 and the Comet equivalent before that. This comes up every time River Joint gets mentioned. No reduction in fleet size!

David Flandry
David Flandry
7 days ago
Reply to  DMJ

Three is not a fleet, but a squadron. (Actually, a flight).

DMJ
DMJ
7 days ago
Reply to  David Flandry

If an airline owns 3 aircraft that’s it’s fleet.

DougS
DougS
8 days ago

Having got rid of Sentinel, aren’t we a little short in numbers and capability? As a segue way, I note the Chief of the Army’s new comments. After years of Governments’ short changing the military and particular the Army, he’s going to have a battle on his hands trying to increase capability across the entire spectrum; from army numbers to shortfalls in equipment.

DaveyB
DaveyB
6 days ago
Reply to  DougS

Yes, but the main significance from his predecessors is that he made this statement when he has just got the job, not after he left. So he is not towing the party line and telling what he sees as a major problem. especially if something does kick off and the Army are needed in a peer conflict! It will be interesting to hear his replies to the Defence Committee questions. Will he speak his mind or will he give the standard party line?

Richard Beedall
Richard Beedall
7 days ago

The RAF’s Rivet Joint and Poseidon fleets are maxed out capacity wise. An RAF Wing Commander recently appealed for the purchase of another 3 P-8A’s to enable tasks such as joint operations with the RN’s new carriers. He wouldn’t have said that on the record without prior approval.