Offutt’s ISR Planes Prep for Evolving Threats

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, right, talks with 55th Wing Commander Col. Michael Manion while visiting Offutt AFB, Neb., on March 27, 2019, to survey damage caused by recent flooding and to meet with Team Offutt airmen. Air Force photo by Delanie Stafford.

OFFUTT AFB, Neb.—Great power competition may be the focus of the Pentagon’s latest strategy, but the 55th Wing here says handling evolving threats is just another day on the job.

The wing’s niche intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance jets have flown about 12 miles off the coast of Russia and China for decades, wing leaders say, but they don’t expect their planes’ unique electronic signals, missile launch, and radioactivity recon roles to change much in the coming years.

“Honestly, this wing’s been doing that since the ‘60s,” 55th Operations Group Commander Col. Eric Paulson said in a June 4 interview here. “We’ve spiraled our technology to meet adversary technology and kept up with it, but this is what we’ve been doing.”

A longtime “expeditionary” mindset—being able to deploy quickly from spots around the globe—has helped Rivet Joints, Cobra Balls, Combat Sents, and Constant Phoenixes keep pace with the government’s demand for their intelligence data.

But training also should evolve as geopolitical situations change, Paulson said, particularly if the RC-135 variants have to balance missions in the Middle East while taking on more in the Pacific. That will entail being aware of different threats, learning to use current capabilities in new ways, or using upgraded tools altogether.

He doesn’t expect facing more advanced militaries to call for new crew positions aboard their jets, saying they can top off training instead. Everyone needs to focus more on cyber threats and how to stay relevant in increasingly digital warfare, Paulson said. And even as technology and training evolve, he acknowledges they may have to fall back on old practices for tasks like navigation if their systems are jammed in a fight.

“We’ll do whatever’s asked, and it’s up to our national leadership to determine, ‘Here’s what I’ve got. What can I put here and there?’” Paulson said. “Once we know those [priorities], we’ll work to make sure that those are met.”

The real competition is in each nation’s ability to collect, see, and understand what adversaries’ intentions are and how their tools are changing, 55th Wing Commander Col. Mike Manion said. Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and autonomy will offer powerful boosts to the 55th Wing’s ability to continue its work in an increasingly complicated, gray battlespace, he noted.

New creations underway at the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency can dovetail with routine aircraft upgrades at Big Safari, which manages the Air Force’s secretive big-wing ISR platforms. Each jet leaves Big Safari’s depot every few months a little more advanced than its companions, and injecting tech like AI on this rolling basis rather than waiting for a block upgrade could help 55th Wing fleet software stay on the cutting edge.

After the Air Force decided last year to abandon its E-8C Joint STARS replacement program, saying a new big-wing battle management jet wouldn’t stand up against enemy air defenses, the same question has arisen about whether C-135s could survive in the future.

Paulson said improved air defenses haven’t changed how the wing operates, but “should a war kick off, absolutely, that’ll change some positioning.”

Manion isn’t aware of any talk about putting self-defense systems on his platforms, and that’s intentional.

“We’re not hiding our mission or our presence from anybody,” Manion said. “We fly in international airspace and there’s a lot of rules of engagement that go along with that. I think we’re intentionally painted white with no self-defense as a means to show that we’re just here to be here. We mean you no harm.”

The RC-135 and its variants are about a half-century old and face the wear and tear of old age. To remain viable for a possibly heavier mission load in the coming decades, maintainers are trying to stay one step ahead of what they might need to fix next and what crews could encounter in combat.

55th Maintenance Group Commander Col. Todd Hammond said his group starts each day with an intelligence brief focused on Russia, China, and North Korea.

“We want the technicians to understand the importance of why they’re maintaining the aircraft and why the systems need to function in those particular threat environments,” he said. “We work together to make sure that as taskings come down … that we’re working together jointly [across government] to optimize the systems to make sure that they can go forward and deploy.”

Pilots report any discrepancies that occur during sorties, which are then considered as part of larger trends. Hammond is briefed weekly on the fleet’s status, plus monthly and quarterly on continuing trends.

“We’re just working together a little closer [with government and depot partners] to make sure the availability essentially can be relied upon if we are to plus up in the Pacific, or if ISIS moves to Africa in the Sahel, that we can push there,” he said. “If Russia begins to start something in Ukraine or Eastern Europe, then we can monitor.”

Even as most eyes sit on simmering issues in the Eastern Hemisphere, in-demand ISR assets won’t get a break from other conflicts du jour.

Mo Krishna, a former 55th OG commander who is now helping lead Offutt’s flood recovery effort as a civilian, told Air Force Magazine the service hoped the Trump administration’s talk of removing troops from the Middle East would ease mission requirements at a time when 55th Wing fleets are stressed by the March storm. Then, US tensions with Iran flared.

“The drum’s beating hard again,” Krishna said. “The Joint Staff sees needs all over the place, combatant commanders see needs all over the place. Nobody’s willingly going to give anything up. … We were hoping [US Central Command] was going to draw back and give us some breathing space. It’s getting harder.”

Recent developments in US Southern Command have also busied operators. The 55th OG headed to Puerto Rico earlier this year as a jumping-off point to gain insight into the situation on the ground in Venezuela, which is writhing with political and economic tumult and saw a failed coup in April, Paulson said.

No matter where the 55th Wing is called, Manion argues the Air Force will need a network of ISR sensors that can pick up on new developments in the battlespace anywhere. He doesn’t believe the Air Force needs to buy new big-wing ISR planes to fit the needs of each individual geographic area.

Lots will change, especially in Indo-Pacific Command, if the friction between the US, Russia, and China bubbles into a shooting war, Manion said.

“Everybody’s worried about the ‘fight tonight,’” Krishna added. “[Indo-]Pacific Command is worried about the fight tonight, CENTCOM’s worried about the fight tonight. [US European Command] doesn’t have that drum yet, but we’re sure they will in the future.”