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.