Friday, December 31, 2010

Death Spiral for HELIX - Britain’s RC-135 Rivet Joint Planes

Great Britain is conducting a parallel set of efforts to update its fleet. One multi-billion pound program sought to upgrade 12 of its unique Nimrod Mk2 maritime patrol aircraft to Nimrod MRA4 status. The other effort, named Project HELIX, sought to keep its related Nimrod R1 electronic and signals intelligence/ relay aircraft fleet flying until 2025.
Both failed. The Nimrod MR2 fleet was retired in 2010, with several almost-complete MRA4s scrapped, leaving Britain with no long-range maritime surveillance aircraft. The first sign of trouble for the Nimrod R1s was an October 2008 DSCA request, conveying Britain’s official $1+ billion request to field 3 RC-135V/W Rivet Joint ELINT/SIGINT aircraft. That, too, became final, and the R1s will now leave service in 2011 – to be replaced by a joint RAF/USAF program centered on the RC-135W Rivet Joint.

The RC-135 Rivet Joint

RC-135V/W Rivet Joint

If this contract goes through, Britain will become the only Rivet Joint operator in the world outside of the United States. The sensitivity of its technologies are such that only a very few countries would even be considered for a sale. Australia, Britain, Canada, and possibly Japan would likely exhaust the potential list.
Rivet Joint aircraft are so important that they are assigned tasks at the national level, above even theater commanders like CENTCOM. Their crews’ job is to collect and relay signals and communications, snooping on enemy transmissions and radar emissions. The planes are advanced enough to precisely locate, record and analyze much of what is being done in the electromagnetic spectrum within their coverage area, which is large enough to cover most countries over the course of a mission flight. They can convey this information, or relay other high bandwidth communications, using a communications array that includes satellite channels, the Tactical Digital Information Link (TADIL/A), the Tactical Information Broadcast Service (TIBS), and other options.
American RC-135V/Ws can be refueled in the air, using the USAF’s standard dorsal intake. Britain standardized on the rival hose-and-probe system used by the US Navy, however, and its current and future aerial tankers lack the aerial boom structure required to refuel dorsal intakes. Britain’s C-135 derived E-3D AWACS planes have a forward-mounted probe, and reportedly added a receptacle that allows them to receive fuel from boom-equipped aircraft. It will be interesting to see how this aspect of the KC-135Rs’ conversion is handled as the contract goes through.

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