The Royal Air Force has taken delivery of the first of three RC-135V/W Rivet Joint signals intelligence aircraft from contractor L-3 Communications as part of a nearly £650 million ($1.03 billion) deal signed by the UK and US governments in 2010. (SAC Blake Carruthers / RAF)
LONDON — The Royal Air Force has taken delivery of the first of three RC-135V/W Rivet Joint signals intelligence aircraft from contractor L-3 Communications as part of a nearly £650 million ($1.03 billion) deal signed by the UK and US governments in 2010.
The aircraft, known as Airseeker in British service, arrived at its home base at RAF Waddington earlier today. The remaining airframes are expected to be delivered at intervals of up to 18 months, said an MoD spokesman.
The aircraft still requires military release-to-service approval from the RAF and air worthiness approval from the Military Aviation Authority (MAA) before the RC-135 can be flown on training or operational missions.
The MAA, set up in the wake of the crash of an RAF Nimrod surveillance aircraft that killed 14 crew in 2006, is being particularly diligent in granting air worthiness approval, delaying the entry into service of several aircraft types, including the Airbus A330 tanker/transport aircraft, the Thales Watchkeeper unmanned air vehicle and the Lockheed Martin Hercules C-130 Block7 upgrade.
Air Vice-Marshal Phil Osborn, director of capability at Britain’s Joint Forces Command, said the plan is to have “all three Rivet Joint aircraft ... fully operational by mid-2017.”
Osborn said delivery of the aircraft to the RAF’s 51 Squadron at Waddington is a “critical step in the re-establishment of a world class UK airborne signals intelligence capability.”
The British Airseekers are being converted from vintage USAF KC-135 tanker aircraft at L-3’s Greenville, Texas, facility. It’s the first time the US government has allowed the Rivet Joint signal intelligence capability to be exported.
In 2011, the British signed a deal worth nearly $1 billion with the US government to support and update the RAF aircraft through 2025.
The Nimrod crash over Afghanistan was partly responsible for an MoD decision to ax the RAF’s Nimrod R1 signals surveillance aircraft in 2011. Since then, the British have retained a reduced capability by training and operating as part of USAF Rivet Joint crews.
The MoD said in a statement that UK crews had already achieved in excess of 32,000 flying hours and 1,800 sorties as part of the US 55th Reconnaissance Wing.