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RESOUNDING SUCCESS OF RC-15 ‘RIVET JOINT’ By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

The first RC-135W Rivet Joint flight in RAF service.
18 Feb 15. Seven months since the first of what will by 2018 be a fleet of three RC-135W ‘Rivet Joint’ (RJ) surveillance aircraft in service with the Royal Air Force was officially deployed to Northern Iraq to provide vital intelligence and analysis for allied forces engaged in the battle against ISIL crews of RAF Waddington based 51 Squadron have had very little time for rest.

(photo© Crown copyright 2015)

With just one single RC-135W Rivet Joint (ZZ664) aircraft and this having only flown for the first time in the UK in May last year ahead of requiring significant work-up to reach Initial Operating Capability it is a very great credit to members of 51 Squadron that within just a few weeks of this having been achieved they were able to deploy to the Gulf region for the first time.

As a programme ‘Airseeker’ has been brilliantly overseen by the MOD’s Chief of Materiel (Air), Air Marshal Simon Bollom. The £650 million UK Airseeker project which was announced in SDSR 2010 required that three ex USAF Boeing KC-135 aircraft would be converted by L-3IS at Greenville, Texas and that the first of these aircraft would be delivered in 2014.

Based at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar ZZ664 was initially used to gather intelligence over Northern Iraq and particularly in assisting to pinpoint locations of displaced Kurdish people. RC-135 which is also commonly referred to ‘Rivet Joint’ can detect, identify and geo-locate signals throughout the electromagnetic spectrum and communicate the information on to other allied platforms. Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) Communications Intelligence (COMINT) and Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) is vital capability in support of other force elements.

Acquired as a direct replacement for the three Nimrod R1 that had long conducted the SIGINT and COMINT role ‘Rivet Joint’ is a very worthy successor to the former capability which had been withdrawn from service in July 2011. Having taken a large risk and gapped ‘SIGINT’ capability for three years the arrival, achievement of airworthiness certificate from the Military Aviation Authority, fast entry into service by crews that had trained of the first ‘Rivet Joint’ aircraft occurred at a very opportune time.

The second converted Boeing aircraft in the UK ‘Airseeker’ programme will be delivered from the L-3 Greenville facility later this year with the third and final due for delivery in 2018. Given technology sensitivities of ‘Rivet Joint’ capability the UK is, outside of the US which currently operates 15 RC-135 aircraft, not surprisingly the only other operator of the type.

Ahead of delivery of the first ‘Rivet Joint’ aircraft to the UK last year crews from 51 Squadron under the then Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Gary Crosby, had been training with the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing of USAF based at Offcut Air Force Base, Nebraska. Now under the command of Wing Commander Tom Talbot my understanding was that the initial plan envisaged four crews from 51 Squadron have been trained at Offcut. Ahead of Initial Operating Capability being achieved in the UK last year my understanding was that crews from 51 Squadron, including pilots, navigators, electronic warfare officers, intelligence operators and airborne maintenance technicians had actually flown some 32,000 hours on operational missions with USAF on 1,800 individual sorties.

Apart from servicing intervals, by the end of December last year ‘Rivet Joint’ had completed five months of almost solid deployment out of Al Udeid and it is very pleasing to be able to say that the capability has been considered a resounding success. Clearly it takes time and considerable effort to work up to full operational capability and it is important to note here that with only one aircraft you are either 100% or zero mission capable.

But I have to say that notwithstanding the requirement for mission confidentiality I find it surprising that there has so far been very little official comment about ‘Rivet Joint’ success. Indeed, despite the Secretary of State heralding the initial deployment of RJ into theatre last August, there appears to have been a huge reluctance on the part of the MOD and the Royal Air Force to publically state the very high level of success that I understand from NATO colleagues has been achieved in the first six months deployment. I admit to finding it absolutely fascinating to watch the UK Airseeker programme progress. RJ is brilliant technology and capability and I well know just how hard members of 51 Squadron have worked to achieve mission success in such a short space of time. I have subsequently spoken to several people that have recently been to Northern Iraq and from the compliments that they have paid to RJ capability I know how well the capability has been received.

All of which makes the reluctance of the MOD authorities to portray the huge success that RJ as a newly acquired platform and capability has achieved on its first six months deployment appear rather odd. To all intents and purposes, unless I have missed something, it appears to me that both externally and internally RJ deployment has neither merited or been deemed worthy of mention. Why? I also bound to say that from the Squadron point of view and also from a Royal Air Force perspective lack of positive comment surrounding the initial success of RJ deployment is both disappointing and damaging for all those involved.

By the end of last year my understanding is that in the first five months of RJ deployment close to 450 hours of operational flying over Afghanistan, Iraq and Arabian Gulf territory had been completed. A high level of anticipated sorties had been completed and some of those that had been lost can be put down to diplomatic clearances as opposed to operational unserviceability. My US colleagues inform me that over there RJ is expected to have 60% serviceability and I understand although cannot confirm that the single Royal Air Force RJ has exceeded that level.

My view is that RJ is an exceptionally capable system and although it was initially a fraught process to get the capability to operational status it has the full confidence of all those who operate it. The very fact that 51 Squadron were given such a compressed period of time to work-up before deploying in support of allied forces in Northern Iraq and that was able to quickly transition to the completely different mission requirement in Afghanistan if required is not only testament to the capability but to the calibre of 51 Squadron personnel.

For a capability that numbers just one aircraft and that as I have said is on that score either one hundred percent of zero percent mission capable at any point of time I am in no doubt that RJ is a brilliant addition to Royal Air Force capability and one that I hope will very soon be properly recognised by the authorities for what it is – great capability operated by a great Squadron. An excellent procurement that was within budget and on time all the way through. Taxpayer money well spent and one that they deserve to know.



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