Royal Air Force flew its first Boeing RC-135W Rivet Joint intelligence gathering and surveillance aircraft in UK airspace for the first time on May 23.
The aircraft delivered in last November, remained grounded following certification issues due its vintage platform.
RC-135W is based on a 50 year old USAF KC-135 aerial refueling tanker platform, upgraded and modified to the Rivet Joint configuration by L-3 Communications at its Greenville, Texas, facility.
The Rivet Joint can gather data and vital intelligence using advanced sensors, and carry out onboard analysis and distribute the information to ground forces via its advanced communications suite.
Its on-board sensor suite, allows the 30+ mission crews to detect, identify and geolocate signals throughout the electromagnetic spectrum.
The aircraft is one of the 3 that UK is acquiring from US, as part of the Airseeker program. The agreement through Foreign Military Sales route was signed in 2010 at a cost of around £650 million.
The Rivet Joint fleet will be based at RAF Waddington, replacing the retired Nimrod R1. The fleet will form the No. 51 Squadron, along with RAF's other ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) assets, which includes E-3D Sentry, Shadow, Sentinel, Reaper UAV and Typhoon, Tornado GR4 based reconnaissance capabilities.
Since 2011, the RAF’s 51 Squadron have been training and operating along USAF Rivet Joint aircraft and ground stations to familiarise with the aircraft and its capabilities. 51 Squadron personnel have completed Conversion Training at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, USA.
RAF crews have already clocked more than 32,000 flying hours and 1800 sorties as part of the USAF 55th Reconnaissance Wing. The RAF Rivet Joint fleet will be fully operational by mid-2017.
The three RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft will retain USAF's colours of a white top, black nose and grey underside with RAF roundels painted on to it, to save £3 million for trials to ensure the paint did not interfere with surveillance technology if repainted.
The RC-135V/W is the USAF's standard airborne SIGINT platforms.
It is powered by four CFM International F108-CF-201 high bypass turbofan engines, each producing 21,600 pounds of thrust.
The aircraft has a wingspan of 39.9 m,length of 41.1 m and height of 12.8 m, with a Maximum Takeoff Weight of 133,633 kgs.