The Boeing RC-135 is a family of large reconnaissance aircraft built by Boeing and used by the United States Air Force and Royal Air Force to support theatre and national level intelligence consumers with near real-time on-scene collection, analysis and dissemination capabilities. Based on the C-135 Stratolifter airframe, various types of RC-135s have been in service since 1961. Unlike the C-135 and KC-135 which are recognized by Boeing as the Model 707, the RC-135 is internally designated as the Model 739 by the company. Many variants have been modified numerous times, resulting in a large variety of designations, configurations, and program names.

Design and development

The first RC-135 variant, the RC-135A, were ordered in 1962 by the United States Air Force to replace the Boeing RB-50 Superfortress. Originally nine were ordered but this was later reduced to four. Boeing allocated the variant the designation Boeing 739-700 but they were modified variant of the KC-135A then in production. They used the same J57-P engines as the tanker variant did, but carried cameras in a bay just aft of the nose wheel bay where the forward fuel tank was normally located. They had no refueling system fitted and they were to be used for photographic and surveying tasks.

The next variant ordered was the RC-135B to be used as an electronic intelligence aircraft to replace the Boeing RB-47H Stratojet on ELINT duties. Similar to the earlier variants, the RC-135Bs were fitted with TF-33 turbofans rather than the older J57s. These ten aircraft were delivered directly into storage in 1965 while they awaited installation of an improved electronics suite. By 1967, they emerged as RC-135Cs and were all delivered that year. The refueling boom was not fitted and the boom operator station was used as a camera bay for a KA-59 camera. Externally, the aircraft were fitted with sideways looking airborne radar (SLAR) antenna on the lower forward fuselage.

The RC-135Bs were the last of the new aircraft built. All the RC variants that followed were modified aircraft, either from earlier RC variants or from tankers.

In 2005, the RC-135 fleet completed a series of significant airframe, navigation and powerplant upgrades which include re-engining from the Pratt & Whitney TF-33 to the CFM International CFM-56 (F-108) engines used on the KC-135R and T Stratotanker and upgrade of the flight deck instrumentation and navigation systems to the AMP standard. The AMP standard includes conversion from analog readouts to a digital “glass cockpit” configuration.

Operational history

The current RC-135 fleet is the latest iteration of modifications to this pool of aircraft dating back to the early 1960s. Initially employed by Strategic Air Command for reconnaissance, the RC-135 fleet has participated in every armed conflict involving U.S. forces during its tenure. RC-135s supported operations in Vietnam, the Mediterranean for Operation El Dorado Canyon, Grenada for Operation Urgent Fury, Panama for Operation Just Cause, the Balkans for Operations Deliberate Force and Allied Force, and Southwest Asia for Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. RC-135s have maintained a constant presence in Southwest Asia since the early 1990s.

Originally, all RC-135s were operated by Strategic Air Command. Since 1992 they have been assigned to Air Combat Command. The RC-135 fleet is permanently based at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska and operated by the 55th Wing, using forward operating locations worldwide. The 55th Wing operates 22 platforms in three variants: three RC-135S Cobra Ball, two RC-135U Combat Sent, and 17 RC-135V/W Rivet Joint.

On August 9, 2010, the Rivet Joint recognized its 20th anniversary of continued service in Central Command, dating back to the beginning of Desert Storm. This represents the longest unbroken presence of any aircraft in the Air Force inventory. During this time it has flown over 8,000 combat missions supporting air and ground forces of Operations Desert Storm, Desert Shield, Northern Watch, Southern Watch, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, which continues to this day.

On 22 March 2010 the British Ministry of Defence announced that it had reached agreement with the US Government to purchase three RC-135W Rivet Joint aircraft along with associated ground systems to replace the Nimrod R1, which was subsequently retired in June 2011. The aircraft are scheduled to be delivered between 2014 and 2018. The RAF received the first RC-135W in September 2013, and first deployed one in July 2014 to potentially assist efforts to combat Islamic State militants in Iraq.

The Boeing RC-135 is a family of large reconnaissance aircraft built by Boeing and used by the United States Air Force and Royal Air Force to support theatre and national level intelligence consumers.