Operators Push to Keep C-135s in Future ISR Network

A1C Kejion Madden-Vaughn (left) and SSgt. Riley Neads (right), crew chiefs with the 55th Maintenance Group, prepare to launch an RC-135 V/W Rivet Joint aircraft during Global Thunder 17, US Strategic Command’s annual command post and field training exercise on Oct. 30, 2016, at Offutt AFB, Neb. Air Force photo by Delanie Stafford.

OFFUTT AFB, Neb.—As the Air Force sets its sights on a future that relies less on mission-specific aircraft and more on what a network of assets can accomplish together, the 55th Wing here argues you can’t count out their C-135s.

RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, the 1960s-era electromagnetic spectrum reconnaissance platform, will be a critical and unique piece in a future network because upgrades can keep it current as technology evolves, officials say. At the same time, Air Force leaders and national lawmakers are starting to think about what signals intelligence and other niche spy missions might look like in the next few decades—and how jets fit into that mix.

“Increased network collaboration, I think, is the right route to go to, whether that’s a noded battle management or that’s a noded intelligence-sharing capability,” 55th Wing Commander Col. Mike Manion said in a June 4 interview. “I think the Air Force is going the right direction with that and I think the Rivet Joint plays a vital role in that. We bring many capabilities and we bring a specificity to the data that is currently not available from other sources.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein suggested in April planes like the C-135 variants could go the same way as Joint STARS, which the Air Force is replacing with a network of sensors, ground systems, and satellites instead of a dedicated jet. Joint STARS recapitalization was scrapped amid concerns that the big-wing ISR plane wouldn’t survive enemy air defenses.

“The same work that we’re doing in Advanced Battle Management System, as we look at what the replacement for Joint STARS is going to be, we’re looking at all of these capabilities—the ones that right now are more platform-centric,” Goldfein said.

The Air Force envisions flying C-135s for at least 30 more years, and has pledged to work in lockstep with the United Kingdom’s three RC-135s until the mid-2030s. But when it comes time to think about future systems, 55th Operations Group Commander Col. Eric Paulson told Air Force Magazine he’d recommend swapping out the current fleet for new jets instead of farming out their capabilities to other platforms.

“There’s capabilities that the aircraft have that’s just impossible with some of the other assets,” Paulson said June 4. “There’s some overlap, but that’s the beauty of … this multidomain mindset we have is, now we all use more capability together to create something even more amazing, but there’s particular capabilities that just aren’t available using anyone else at this time.”

Col. Todd Hammond, 55th Maintenance Group commander, argues even the service’s largest unmanned aircraft—the RQ-4 Global Hawk—couldn’t match the data-crunching capacity the 55th Wing offers. Turning to remotely piloted aircraft isn’t always the answer, they say.

“Whether it’s manned or unmanned, there’s a certain responsiveness and proximity you can get with an airborne asset that we just can’t get with other assets sometimes,” Paulson said. “The other missions we have are even more unique in what they can provide that no one else can.”

Two RC-135U Combat Sent aircraft collect and analyze electronic radar transmissions. The RC-135S Cobra Ball platform tracks ballistic missile launch data. WC-135 Constant Phoenixes sniff up radioactive particles after atomic detonations. The two OC-135 jets that enforce the Open Skies Treaty by photographing other nations’ domestic military activity are progressing through their own replacement program.

It doesn’t make sense to Manion to pursue a SIGINT plane that can fly in less-contested airspace and have another that could avoid advanced threats. Instead, he believes one platform like RC-135 should connect to other assets spread around the world that can track new threats popping up anywhere on Earth.

“If we’re connected and collaborative, it doesn’t really matter what sensor sees it first,” Manion said. “We can rapidly adapt to that change, get it out through the collaborative, networked, nodal system, and suddenly we can counter, or exploit, or collect, or disseminate against that new change almost as rapidly as the adversary can make that adjustment.”

As House lawmakers look to block the RC-135’s retirement, recent legislation also seeks answers on what may come next.

On June 3, the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee released text that would stop the Pentagon from retiring any RC-135s until 60 days after the Defense Secretary certifies that “equivalent RC-135 capacity and capability exists to meet combatant commander requirements for indications and warning, intelligence preparation of the operational environment, and direct support to kinetic and non-kinetic operations.”

The language is just covering the committee’s bases, a staffer said, not indicating that any retirement plan is underway.

Another HASC subcommittee noted the Air Force hasn’t found a way to streamline the work of collecting, processing, sharing, and acting on SIGINT data that is spread across the RC-135 program and the Distributed Common Ground System, which analyzes ISR information.

“While investment in the [airborne signals intelligence enterprise] program has produced significant advances in Air Force SIGINT capability, particularly within the RC-135 Rivet Joint program, the establishment of a true integrated airborne SIGINT enterprise architecture continues to elude the USAF,” lawmakers on the HASC emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee said in their 2020 policy proposal. “The committee is aware that significant capability gaps exist in MQ-9 SIGINT sensor relevancy against current threats, and the Air Force has not yet successfully addressed vanishing vendor issues with the high-altitude Airborne Signals Intelligence Payload program.”

House defense authorizers tell the Air Force Secretary to report back by March 1, 2020 with a plan to create an integrated, cloud-based enterprise that pulls in the RC-135, U-2, RQ-4, MQ-9, DCGS, and future signals intelligence systems. That “global Air Force SIGINT system” should send data from various nodes back to the joint force.

“The committee believes the under secretary of defense for intelligence should lead synchronization efforts with the intelligence community to integrate like data sources to enable more comprehensive analysis and exploitation on behalf of the military services,” lawmakers wrote.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s 2020 defense policy bill also told the Air Force to look at how manned and unmanned assets could collaborate on ISR missions, and to examine the process of sharing surveillance data from aircraft like the Rivet Joint.

“There needs to be a clear plan for integrating data from these manned platforms with data from sensors, satellites, and other sources to give a cohesive picture of the battlespace,” a Senate staffer told Air Force Magazine. “Evolving a concept of how to apply this in a contested domain and leveraging the strengths of all of these elements will be crucial to winning in a major conflict.”