As the big RC-135 jet moved from its parking place, Capt. David Lawlor saw the crew chief standing at attention, rendering a solemn salute. Captain Lawlor returned the salute; the crew chief gave a thumbs-up and hurried to his remaining duties. “It was then that it struck me we were really going to war,” said Captain Lawlor, an RC-135 Rivet Joint commander with the 38th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron (SRS).
The men and women who flew and maintained the highly classified RC-135 Rivet Joint (RJ) reconnaissance platform in the Persian Gulf War understand that the story of their contributions might never fully be told. Nonetheless, the RC-135 mission was central to the prosecution of coalition combat operations. Whereas the much-publicized E-3 AWACS was popularly considered the “Eyes of the Storm,” the shadowy Rivet Joint aircraft might best be called the “Ears of the Storm.”
Rivet Joint was a crucial part of the coalition’s intelligence collection capability. It provided real-time intelligence data to theater and tactical commanders, in coordination with such assets as AWACS, E-8 Joint STARS aircraft, the EF-111A. and the Navy’s EA-6B Prowler.
Even in peacetime, the mission of the RC-135 is shrouded in secrecy. Assigned to Strategic Air Command’s 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW) at Offutt AFB, Neb., RC-135s have routinely flown worldwide peacetime strategic aerial reconnaissance missions directed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff on behalf of national intelligence organizations as part of the Burning Wind program. Pilots and navigators on board the “Wind” were part of the 38th SRS. Electronic warfare officers, known as “ravens,” were assigned to the 343d SRS, and in-flight maintenance technicians came from the 55th SRW. Mission personnel were selected from Electronic Security Command units worldwide.
The RC-135 is a specially configured variant of the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker. There are currently five different variants of the RC- 135 in use, two of which-the RC-135V and the RC-135W–are in the Rivet Joint configuration and participate in the Burning Wind program. The other three support special technical reconnaissance programs.
“Hog Nose” and “Cheeks”
Rivet Joint RC-135s are capable of air refueling, enabling them to remain aloft for extended missions over intercontinental distances. They have four TF33 turbofan engines and are covered with a variety of fairings and antennas. The most obvious external characteristics are the airplane’s elongated nose (called a “hog nose” by RJ crew members) and its “cheeks,” large aerodynamic fairings along each side of the forward fuselage.
Wind crews often see adversaries “up close and personal.” Not all of these confrontations have ended peacefully. In July 1960, for example, a 55th SRW RB-47H, a predecessor of the RC-135, was shot down by a Soviet MiG over the Barents Sea. The two surviving crewmen were captured and eventually repatriated. In April 1965, a pair of North Korean MiG-17s attacked and badly damaged another 55th SRW RB-47H, but it managed to escape with no casualties and landed safely in Japan.
RC-135s participated in Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada in 1983, Operation Eldorado Canyon against Libya in 1986, and Operation Just Cause in Panama in 1989- 90, all significant combat operations. According to one raven with over a hundred peacetime RC-135 missions, these encounters definitely improved the RC-135 crews’ operational discipline. The chance to display this discipline in the Gulf War came early in August 1990.
The first Rivet Joint aircraft came to Riyadh Military AB, Saudi Arabia, on August 11, 1990. En route to Saudi Arabia, the airplane conducted an operational reconnaissance mission, establishing the uninterrupted intelligence link that the RJs would provide to theater commanders through the end of the war and long after. Additional RC-135s and crews flew nonstop from Offutt to Riyadh. These RC-135s were part of the 1700th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron. Mission support personnel came from RC-135 detachments at Kadena AB, Japan; Eielson AFB, Alaska; and RAF Mildenhall, England.
Crews initially stayed in Riyadh hotels but soon moved to a large compound thirty minutes from the air base. Accommodations were Spartan. Given the crews’ twenty-hour duty periods on alternating days, there was little time to do anything other than eat and sleep between fifteen-hour missions.
Aloft Twenty Hours
During Desert Shield, RJs flew continuous, twenty-four-hour coverage in a single orbit along the Saudi-Iraqi border. An airplane and crew were on station for twelve hours (or until relieved), with an additional three hours total transit time to reach and return from the orbit area. Any malfunction of a replacement jet meant that the on-duty plane would have to fly an extended orbit, as Maj. Jerry Orcutt’s crew discovered one night in January 1991, when it set an unofficial Desert Storm RC-135 record by staying airborne for more than twenty hours.
Crews flew fifteen-hour missions every other day. Staff personnel filled gaps in manning that occasionally arose, particularly due to illness. The most common ailment among the RJ flyers was an insidious sinus infection caused by extremely low humidity, high dust content, and time spent breathing recycled air while flying. Flight surgeons were able to treat all but the most serious illnesses without grounding the flyers.
This demanding pace was not entirely new to the 55th SRW’s maintenance personnel. In addition to RC-135s the wing operated SAC’s EC-135C Looking Glass airborne command post, which until July 1990 had an airplane continuously airborne. Applying lessons learned from the Looking Glass operation significantly reduced major maintenance problems.
Foremost among these problems was the effect of windblown sand on the airplanes. Sand and grit permeated any opening or panel not tightly sealed. Despite the strict use of engine intake and exhaust covers, engine compressors and fan blades were gouged and scarred from the sand and debris ingested during engine start and takeoff or landing and taxi back. Even at high altitude, the planes encountered so much dust that paint on wing leading edges was stripped off in a single flight.
The incessant flying schedule was generally beneficial to airplane maintenance. Crew chiefs are quick to say that a jet that flies a lot breaks very little, while a plane that sits a lot breaks a lot. Nonetheless, there were recurring maintenance requirements such as phase inspections after, say, 250 flying hours. Approximately every three weeks, an RJ reached this limit of safe flying without a major inspection and overhaul and was rotated back to the US.
The long Rivet Joint missions in the Gulf were a mix of boring flying and moments of confusion, excitement, and concern. For the pilots, the only break from the tedium generally came during the two air refuelings necessary to stay on station for twelve hours. At the outset of Desert Shield, these refuelings were major events. Problems with new autopilot software in the KC-135 precluded autopilot-on refueling, and tanker crews lacked experience in long autopilot-off contacts with fuel offloads in excess of 100,000 pounds. The fatigue felt by most RJ pilots made these refuelings even more challenging. By the beginning of the war, however, experience levels had improved dramatically and air refueling had become routine.
The navigators on board the RJs worked continuously to maintain precise positioning throughout the mission. Using systems as ad vanced as stellar-inertial and global positioning system (GPS) satellites and as basic as dead reckoning, the two RJ navigators kept the airplane in the optimum orbit for data collection and coordinated with the mission crew members for special orbit requirements.
The Work of the “Backenders”
The Rivet Joint reconnaissance mission was conducted by the ravens and other US personnel. Using the RC-135’s sophisticated and powerful sensors, these “backenders” located, identified, and cataloged electronic threats that could have affected the coalition’s combat forces. At first the Iraqis were relatively careless with their electronic emitters, but eventually they “ran silent,” turning them on only for brief periods in the early morning and late evening.
“The Iraqis were good,” said one RJ mission specialist, “but they weren’t good enough.” By that he meant that the RJ already had picked up the most vital data.
In the Iran-Iraq War, Iranian F-14 Tomcats with their powerful radars were used like miniature AWACS planes, reporting Iraqi lighter operations to Iranian air defense com-manders. To counter this capability, Iraqi Mirage F1-EQ fighters flew high-speed, low-altitude missions well beneath the Tomcat’s radar limits. Based on timing, the Mirage F1- EQ would pop up directly beneath the Tomcat’s orbit, briefly illuminate the F-14 with its radar, and fire one or two air-to-air missiles at it. Iran lost several Tomcats this way– a fact not lost on RJ crew members.
During the months of Desert Shield, Iraqi lighters flew teardrop-shaped tracks that worked well with this tactic. When the planes were launched from forward Iraqi bases, these fighter tracks ended directly beneath Rivet Joint and AWACS orbits. There was little doubt in the mind of RJ crew members that the Iraqis planned to try to destroy these important aerial assets, so Desert Shield flights were as tense as those during Desert Storm. On one occasion just before the start of the war, an RJ reported unidentified radar contacts during the rendezvous with a tanker. The local AWACS was unaware of any coalition aircraft in the vicinity, although some high-speed, high-altitude Iraqi planes (probably MiG-25 “Foxbats”) had been reported minutes earlier. US F-15s were quick to scour the area with their powerful radar but found nothing. The Foxbats had disappeared. The radar returns persisted.
At the same time, a US ground unit near the Iraqi border reported it was being surrounded by unidentified ground forces and requested immediate assistance. With tanker in tow, the RJ headed for the beleaguered ground unit. The mysterious radar blips also accelerated and began a course that would intersect that of the Rivet Joint plane. To everyone’s relief, it turned out that the ground unit had mistakenly identified a returning patrol as hostile troops. The mysterious radar returns turned out to be rare, spurious radar returns of the RC-135 and its tanker. As the RJ accelerated to rush to the aid of the ground unit, so too did its enigmatic pursuers. Only the discipline brought about by training and operations under pressure prevented shooting at ghosts.
The War Begins
On the eve of the war, the replacement RJ under the command of Capt. Paul Hutchinson taxied out and launched amid the usual radio chatter and air traffic control calls. If the Iraqis were monitoring the radio traffic, they would hear nothing unusual about that night’s launch.
Shortly thereafter, in absolute radio silence, a second RJ, commanded by Major Orcutt, launched and hurriedly established itself in a new, second orbit. Iraqi radar remained silent and thus ignorant of this second, ominous development. Until the war’s end, there would be two RJs airborne at all times, taxing the system and its crews to their limits.
To alleviate this strain, additional crews and every available RJ in SAC were relocated to the Middle East for Desert Storm or for missions along the Turkish-Iraqi border in Operation Proven Force. In Saudi Arabia, primary crews moved from the compound into field conditions at Riyadh AB, sleeping in tents. On the first night of the war, air raid sirens awoke crew members trying to sleep prior to their next-day combat sortie. There were worries that Iraqi Su-24 “Fencers” carrying chemical weapons might hit Saudi air bases. The attacks never came.
Crews often wore flak vests during takeoff and landing to ward off possible small-arms tire. To reduce the vulnerability of the RC-135, the 55th SRW Combat Tactics Division developed unique takeoff and approach procedures. Combined with the extremely bad weather, these radical tactics were very unsettling compared to traditional peacetime departure and recovery profiles, but they seemed effective.
Iraq’s Scud missile proved to be a major annoyance. “I don’t know how many times the airfield at Riyadh came under Scud attack,” said Captain Lawlor, “but it seemed as if it was always when my crew and I were out trying to launch.”
Capt. Mike Canna, an RJ intelligence officer, was nearly hit by Scud debris. “It happened so quickly,” he said. “I saw the Patriot launch, dove for cover, and seconds later a big chunk of Scud missile landed right where I had been standing.”
The US Patriot intercepted one Scud missile directly in the flight path of a landing RC- 135, which narrowly avoided debris and down-wash.
The RC-135 is not well suited for direct combat operations. It has no defensive armament and must rely on its “eyes” and “ears” for protection. During operations in the Gulf, however, the RJs were never alone. F-15s routinely orbited nearby and were quick to react to potential threats. Prior to the war, Iraqi fighters would often fly right up to the border. The RJ would withdraw to a safe distance while the Eagles clustered along the border waiting for a chance to shoot, a chance that never came. Other fighter coverage came from Navy F-14s British Tornado F. Mk. 3s, French Mirage 2000s and Saudi F-15s and Tornado ADVs.
The Iraqi Fighter Threat
On the first night of the war, an AWACS plane detected a fast mover-probably a MiG-23 “Flogger”- heading south across the Saudi-Iraqi border directly toward an orbiting RJ. As the RC-135 began evasive action, F-15s from the 33d Tactical Fighter Wing, Eglin AFB, Fla., responded to the RJ’s calls for assistance. The MiG-23 its radar warning gear no doubt illuminated like a Christmas tree and alerted to the F-15s fled back across the border. A similar event took place on the same night in the other RJ orbit. This time, however, the F-15s shot down the threatening Iraqi Mirage F1-EQ.
On the night of January 23, an RC-135 was shot at by an unidentified type of surface-to-air missile. “I was standing behind the pilot and looking out the window when I saw the launch,” recalled Capt. Tim Spaeth, an RC-135 instructor navigator. “As the missile guided closer, the pilot prepared to take evasive action. Suddenly, just a few thousand feet below us, the SAM detonated prematurely.”
Among the RJ’s least-known accomplishments is its role in search-and- rescue (SAR) operations. The airplane’s sophisticated sensor suite allows it to pinpoint a downed aviator’s emergency rescue beacon. Under hostile conditions, the flyer might transmit on his beacon only for extremely brief periods, and local terrain can dramatically reduce the beacon’s range. The RJ’s sensors can find the beacon, track its azimuth over time, and thus give an accurate position of the flyer.
Working with SAR forces, the RJ can direct rescue helicopters to the flyer’s position with less wasted time and effort and help the SAR forces avoid enemy troop positions or antiaircraft threats. RJ crews participated in several such rescues during Desert Storm. On one occasion, the RJ required air refueling during a critical phase of an SAR mission. The available KC-10 tanker flew right up to the border, joined up with the RJ, offloaded its fuel, and allowed the SAR operation to go on uninterrupted.
Eyewitnesses to War
Rivet Joint orbits often placed an RJ and its crew in unique positions to witness the campaign firsthand. On the first night of the war, a huge package of five KC-135s refueling twenty F-15Es en route to targets in Iraq flew through the RJ orbit. Later, RC-135 crew members would count the number of southbound contrails passing over the Saudi-Iraqi border. Even numbers usually meant that all of the strike package was returning; odd numbers often meant that a jet had been downed in Kuwait or Iraq and that the hunt was on to rescue the missing aviator. Each night that B-52s struck targets in Kuwait and Iraq, RJ crews saw the small flashes of antiaircraft artillery at low altitude followed by the exploding bombs dropped from the B-52s and, on occasion, the secondary explosions that followed.
On one night, as an RJ banked in its orbit, the aircraft commander witnessed the launch of four Scud missiles. As he turned toward Kuwait, he saw four parallel streaks of fire rising from northwest Kuwait. At first he thought they were SAMs launched at the RJ, but they continued upward out of sight. “I then realized they were Scuds,” said the commander, “and I looked at our navigation systems to determine a bearing from us to their launch site and quickly worked up an approximate launch position with the nav. We then called AWACS with the data.” Soon coalition :”ScudBusters” were dropping iron on the transporter-erector-launchers.
The hunt for Scud missiles almost brought in another of SAC’s RC-135s. Assigned to the 6th SRW at Eielson AFB, Alaska, the RC-135s Cobra Ball was configured to gather data on ballistic missiles. US planners briefly considered using the Cobra Ball’s sensors to help locate the Scud launch sites, and 6th SRW crews were briefed, equipped, and made ready to deploy to Riyadh. Coalition forces, however, had by this time eliminated most of the safe havens from which the Iraqis launched Scuds (and Scud attacks had decreased to almost nil), so the Cobra Ball was not needed.
Throughout the buildup for the war, the days of combat, and the aftermath, Rivet Joint RC-135s flew missions vital to the development and execution of the coalition’s combat operations. The RJs flew over hostile territory and came under fire from ground and aerial threats. Still, not one RC-135 was lost, and there were no combat casualties among its crews, maintenance, or support personnel.
The success of the RC- 135 in Desert Storm has caused the Air Force to plan to convert additional airplanes into RC-135s, and theater commanders are now committed to making the Rivet Joint RC-135 an integral part of their arsenals. The RC-135’s peacetime mission, however, remains the same.
Robert S. Hopkins III, a former Air Force officer, was an aircraft commander qualified in seventeen different types of EC-, KC-, RC- and TC-135 planes, Before flying Rivet Joint combat missions during Operation Desert Storm, he flew special-mission RC-135s in support of the verification of strategic arms agreements. He now teaches history at Creighton University in Omaha.