The move is being prompted by the closure of the USAF’s Mildenhall base in 2022 and issues with the runway at RAF Waddington being too short for the RC-135.

A senior US officer has discussed plans that the US Air Force is considering setting up a joint base with the Royal Air Force for RC-135 Rivet Joint signal intelligence aircraft.

Colonel Thomas Torkelson was quoted in Air Force Magazine as saying:

“The UK doesn’t like Waddington as a long-term solution for their rivet joints because the runway is too short and they require a tanker for every mission from there. So they’ve been waiting for our basing decision [for the location of US Air Force RC-135s in Europe] to see if they might be able to potentially pile onto that and maybe put their UK rivet joints there.”

The United Kingdom purchased three KC-135R aircraft for conversion to RC-135W Rivet Joint standard under the Airseeker project. Acquisition of the three aircraft was budgeted at £634m.

The aircraft form No. 51 Squadron RAF, based at RAF Waddington along with the RAF’s other ISTAR assets. They are expected to remain in service until 2045.

The Royal Air Force describe the platform as follows:

“The RC-135W Rivet Joint is equipped with a variety of sensors, allowing its multi-disciplined crew to intercept and exploit emissions across the electromagnetic spectrum, providing both strategic and tactical level intelligence.”

The roots of the deal lie in Project Helix, launched in 2003, the aim was to study options for extending the service life of the Nimrod R1’s out into the next two decades. It wasn’t until 2008 that Rivet Joint was seriously considered. Helix became Project Airseeker, under which three KC-135 aircraft were converted to RC-135W standard.

The first RC-135W was delivered ahead of schedule to the RAF in November 2013 and the type has been used extensively to support British and allied operations in the Middle East and around the world.

The RC-135 signals intelligence aircraft is fitted with an on-board sensor suite that allows the aircraft to detect, identify and geolocate signals throughout the electromagnetic spectrum. The information can then be distributed in a variety of formats to a wide range of platforms through Rivet Joint’s extensive communications suite.

52 COMMENTS

    • Mildenhall drawdown is now delayed by around seven years, if ever? This facility is near to the Capital, (in flying time) modern, with facilities to take all types of American aircraft. The plan to close was a shortsighted decision, due to the fact the UK will always give US forces a stable platform for logistics and operations. House builders are champing at the bit to erect hundreds of properties over such a valuable asset!

      I would ask both respective defence departments to look ahead to when the EU eventually establishes the EUDF, where then for NATO? Ever closer cooperation between the UK & US is as inevitable as the Sun rising and setting. All that is now required, is little rational thinking and base the RAF FC 135 at Mildenhall.

  1. Well, there’s a turn up.

    I thought the recent refurb of Waddington included a longer runway?
    Boscombe Down has a long one, as does Brize.

          • Yes but Lyneham closed while we still had VC10. So BN still handled 30 or so vc10 along with the c130 and other aircraft for a few years. So I’m shore it can handle a few more aircraft.

    • The runway at Wadd is actually a foot or too shorter than it was before the rebuild. There is room to extend it at the 02 end though if someone was to stump up the cash and hundreds of acres of space on the east side for Tanker ramps and hangars should someone want to pay for it !

  2. I seem to recall that the USAF were looking at Fairford for their tanker force so why not co-locate the RC135’s there. Or even to Brize Norton.

    • The USAF confirmed back in May during there FY18 budget release that there Rivet Joints are moving to RAF Fairford by 2021 with $45 million being spent on Fairford to facilitate the move.

  3. Waddington had the longest runway in the UK during the war when it was used as a diversion base for crippled aircraft. It was shortened after the war, but I am sure it could be lengthened again.
    There are excellent reasons for a joint base in terms of servicing, spares, training, etc. but who would have the last say on the operations?

      • Morning
        USAF deploy their RC-135 based on operational requirement and demand.
        RAF have now picked up some of the slack WRT European operations so those deployments have been reduced. Large Russian exercises normally dictate when these a/c get deployed to the U.K. etc.

        • Morning Lee

          Reason I asked was whether an existing station could be used if we are only talking a small number of aircraft. A Squadrons worth might require their own station.

          • Hi Daniele
            3/4 aircraft would be fine. Gives the ability to sustain one platform on station continuously, the burden would also be shared. Information would be processed by joint team and required national intelligence provided via normal channels

    • Hello,
      The Waddington runway length is 9741 feet and that of Mildenhall is 9219 feet…….I think you are confusing Wittering with Waddington as one of the wartime diversion bases,I do not think Waddington acted as such although it was a Master Diversion Airfield post war.

      Thank you.

  4. Keep Mildhenhall and create a super base around it for returning UK troops – it is ideal for this and probably in far better condition than many other bases on the RAF’s books.

    Ideal for Thetford TA and gives the MOD to have an integrated base. Surely this is a good use of assets in the long run.

      • Me too. It’s all well & weird closing major airbases in peacetime, but in war they have to be acquired & built in a hell of a hurry. Why destroy such a huge asset with all it’s infrastructure? Madness. I was amazed when the 3 airbases closest to the continent & North sea, Coltishall, Bentwaters & Woodbridge, were closed. Why not just mothball at least some of them?
        I suppose JATO could be fitted for shorter runways?

        • I agree.

          I have no issue with closing army barracks but strategic things like airfields and naval bases with their associated infrastructure, no way.

          At least many ex RAF Stations are occupied by the army.

  5. Evening all
    The U.K. ISTAR capability is based at RAF Waddington and hosts, along with other a/c the Rivet Joint platform.
    What is being asked is a move of capability from one airbase where the facilities are no longer fit for purpose to an airbase that is.
    Remember a/c although important are just one part of a system. The RAF has chosen the “super hub” model with regards the dispersal of their capabilities and assets releasing unwanted airbases for disposal.
    If the RAF are seriously looking for a new home for the ISTAR capability, something that they would like to co-host with the USAF then they are somewhat limited in places they can relocate to.
    There are locations available, one springs to mind and it’s not Mildenhall.

    • Why not put them at Akrotiri closer to the Middle East?

      The rest of the ISTAR capability Sentinel, Shadow, Reaper GS, and associated EW & ISTAR ground assets at Waddington and Digby should remain as is.

      • Hi Daniele
        The threat has moved north, to where it always was.
        The RAF have decided, through experience, to keep capabilities together.
        We have capacity in the U.K. to do this, however it has to pass the three tests in order:
        Political – will it get me votes
        Economic- how much does it cost and will it get me votes
        Military – does it make military sense and will that get me votes

        • Evening Lee.

          Well the votes issue is always with us with our wretched political class.

          And if Russia is the big threat again, then HMG will have no choice but to increase spend if a new Cold War develops.

          And if the focus is indeed moving north and covering the GIUK Gap and the Barents Sea is vital again then they’d better reactivate RAF Kinloss.

          That would please the SNP.

          ( And build some more Astutes ! )

          • Evening
            No need to relocate 39 Regt. airbase is big enough, runway still active (long enough) and around those areas of Scotland the SNP has work on its hands.
            Infrastructure is still sound, weather although in Scotland is not too harsh all year round and RAF Lossiemouth with its soon to arrive P-8 Fleet is just down the road.

  6. The USAF have already confirmed their Rivet joints will move to RAF fairford by 2021 and the work to bring Fairford up to standard ( as listed in the USAF FY18 budget )has already started which includes the building of squadron facilities and top secret communication facilities and well as work to harden the overruns on Fairford’s already very long runway. It makes complete sense to move the RAF Airseekers to Fairford especially given it’s close proximity to Brize and the massive space available at Fairford.

  7. I understand that big airborne radar systems in the 1960 weighed 15 tons or so but the whole concept today of an 80 ton aircraft with a dozen crew and banks of computers on board and burning through 60 tons of fuel for only 8 hours of flying time is really outdated.

    The Global Hawk at $130m is less than the Rivet at $220, plus each flight uses just 7 tons of fuel and lasts 32 hours so each aircraft will do 4 times as much. That’s important because there is no way our 3 Rivets can do a 24 hour job more than once or twice.

    Drones should also do the AEW job off our carriers as well instead of the Merlin/Sea King bagger jobs.

  8. i think it maybe possible to create an airborne AEW net using a number of drones flying in a grid pattern. Each drone would have a small radar. The loss of one drone would cause the drones to alter their position relative to the others to optimize coverage. All drones would share data with an aaw ship or ground station.

    • I’m no expert. My initial thoughts with that are.

      Can they fly safely in UK Airspace if that is a UKADR role replacing Sentry?
      How would that work in a deployment oversees which Sentry has often been used for?
      How many would be needed, and would it not be cheaper using a manned platform if several are required?
      How vulnerable would they be to Cyber attack? ( see Iran and Sentinel UAV )
      Are we are talking Global Hawk size to carry the radar and other bits?

      • Evening
        Can they fly safely in U.K. airspace? Maybe but unlikely the CAA will ever give licence.
        Cyber attack: I have talked about this before, in environments where your enemy is limited in its cyber attack profile the deployment of drones et al can be achieved but this is done at risk. Drones are still lost, they still crash. In Australia they are looking at a mixture of fixed radar, drones and aircraft – the areas they have to cover are huge however.
        I would suggest the manned AWACS is here to stay. What can change however is how the RAP is put together and how it is then managed.

      • Remember that ground and ship based radars cover the whole sky except for the low altitude bit over the horizon, so our drones only need to look there.

        Use Global Hawk for UK, but it’s too big for carriers. The Lockheed Martin Fury is catapult launched, just 30kg empty plus 12kg of fuel it carries 60kg of payload for 15 hours. Perhaps that is enough (???) and then 12 of them on our carrier would provide more hours of coverage than 4 Sea Kings with Searchwater. Even a warship could carry them.

        Sticking to the drone concept. We know active sonar is good but ASW helicopters take up a lot of space and are expensive to buy and fuel. Each warship will only carry one or two and they won’t be in the air for very long. So what about 6 Schiebel Camcopters instead of that second helo? At 110kg empty plus 50kg of fuel they fly for 6 hours with 40kg of payload. They could easily suspend a dipping pinger into the sea whilst the ship uses its 2087 TAS to listen.

  9. I still think we should create standalone divisions that have all the necessary Air, Land and Sea assets they need to conduct their tasking and to put these in super bases.

    Mildhenhall is a well maintained and large facility close to a large training area and is perfect for setting up such a base. We do have these already – they are just not fully formed and integrated.

    It is wasteful to let RAF Mildenhall go to developers – close Honington and Barnham and upgrade to a better more useable asset.

    2 old bases for 1 super modern base – what is there not to like

  10. Closure date of RAF Mildenhall set back to 2024

    US Embassy has now formally updated the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) – which owns the site – on revised deadllines for withdrawals from the UK bases, with RAF Mildenhall Squadron Leader Rick Fryer saying: “The MoD has been advised that the full divestitures of RAF Mildenhall and RAF Alconbury/Molesworth will now occur no earlier than 2024.”
    “The revised dates are due to delays in commencing project design and construction for the move of assets from RAF Mildenhall to Germany, and are dependent on the completion of the Joint Intelligence Analysis Center (JIAC) at RAF Croughton.”

  11. Hi all, been reading your comments, very interesting. How ever I say keep Midlenhall. It is already operational and its a great location. I think the R.A.F could also move in with a few other aircraft like the c130s, after all we work along side the yanks most times anyway. If it saves money and time it makes sense.

  12. Evening
    RAF requirements are quite simple
    Fighter aircraft bases for main role, protection of U.K. airspace from infringement and attack. These stations are normally colocsted with attack aircraft as they share same frame etc.
    Transport Hub
    C4ISR hub
    Training hub
    Logistics hub
    Maritime hub (Shared with fighter hub)
    Headquarters

    8 hubs and a HQ with sub units (engineering School, officer School etc)

    It isn’t that complex – define what you need and then locate it somewhere

  13. I recall in the 1980’s tbere were attempts to replicate RJ performance as theater assets by using TR-1’s out of RAF Alconbury to carry sensor pods, SLAR’s, etc., with a downlink to a Milvanned ground-based RJIII system and several other ssytems at Hahn AB. Whether this was establishing a model for drones to replace/backstop RJ’s or not, I don’t recall.

  14. The runway at RAF Sculthorpe is still owned by MOD and active as a training facility. The main runway is 3000 yards long and to the best of my knowledge, heated… Reviving this facility would bring much needed jobs to a deprived area of North Norfolk

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