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RC-135 Rivet Joint

Updated on October 12, 2012

Among the most heavily-tasked aircraft in the entire USAF, the RC-135 Rivet joint force was originally created to spy on the USSR, but in the post Cold War era the type has become even more important, providing tactical forces with real-time monitoring of enemy communications and other electronic emissions, relaying information directly to frontline users via voice and data links.

The original Rivet Joint RC-135Vs were never tankers, having been built new for the recce role as RC-135Bs and immediately converted to RC-135Cs. Externally, the “RJs” are identifiable by the extended “hognose” nose radome, which conceals large ground-mapping radar antennas for precision navigation. Further aft are the “cheek” fairings housing ELINT antennas, and the large COMINT blade antennas under the forward fuselage.

The RC-135W version of the Rivet joint is based on the conversion of RC-135M airframes – these introduced slightly longer “cheeks” that were later refitted to the RC-135Vs. The RC-135W fleet was later supplemented by the conversions of two C-135B transports and a TC-135S. There are also a pair of TC-135Ws; these C-135B conversions lack mission equipment, but are fitted with nonfunctional “cheeks” and “hognoses” to provide RJ pilots with representative training aircraft.

Starting in 1999, all Rivet Joints were rebuilt with CFM56/F108 turbofans in place of their original 1960s-vintage TF33s. The new engines are more supportable (also being used on the KC-135R/T fleet) burn far less fuel, and permit operations at higher weights.

In March 2010, plans were finalized to provide the RAF with three tankers reworked to Rivet Joint configuration to replace retiring Nimrod R.1s

The increasing age and limited internal volume of the various special purpose 707 and C-135 variants was of concern to the USAF as the 1990s ended, and this led to the MC2A program, which would have used the Boeing 767 as the basis for an RC-135/E-8/E-3 replacement. To have been designated E-10, the initial variant would have replaced Joint STARS, with a further model for the AWACS role thentaking over the E-3's mission, and finally a SIGINT model would have been purchased to allow the retirement of the RC-135s.

Rivet Joint Bibliography

[Photo: "Re-Engined Rivet Joint"] Air Forces Monthly July 2001 p.12

David A. Fulghum "Storied Rivet Joint Adds New Missions" AW&ST November 25, 2002 p.54-55

David Donald "Spyplane" P.70 - large color photo of an RC-135W on the boom, p.82 RC-135 on approach & RC-135V color profile, p.95 - RC-135W 62-4138 launching from RAF Mildenhall, p.96 RC-135V 61-4842


A detailed series of walk around photos depicting RC-135V 64-1485


Walk around pics of RC-135W 62-4134

B-52 Heavy Bomber

B-29 Superfortress

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