The U.S. Air Force’s Biggest Spy Planes Are Hunting Islamic State Fighters
RC-135 Rivet Joints spot terrorist radios, phones and scoop up chatter
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
New photographs confirm the U.S. Air Force’s biggest spy planes are helping hunt Islamic State fighters. The missions come as Iraqi and Kurdish troops work to evict the terrorists from the city of Mosul.
On Oct. 21, 2016, at least one RC-135V/W Rivet Joint took off from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar and headed for either Iraq or Syria. Derived from the Boeing 707 airliner, these four engine flying spooks can travel nearly 4,000 miles without needing to refuel.
“The aircraft provided reconnaissance to the 20-nation air coalition by collecting real-time on-scene … intelligence,” one official caption read.
The jets can supply “near real-time on-scene electronic warfare support, intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination capabilities,” another caption explained.
As forces on the ground push back Islamic State, making sure the group’s fighters can’t escape unnoticed is particularly important.
The Rivet Joints have been a nearly constant fixture in the Middle East since the first Gulf War in 1991. For more than a decade afterwards, crews kept watch over Saddam Hussein’s troops while enforcing no fly zones over areas of Iraq.
After a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in 2003, the RC-135s backed up American troops fighting Saddam loyalists and other insurgents. Even when the Pentagon withdrew the bulk of its forces in 2011, the aerial spies kept looking for militants in the country.
In 2014, Islamic State pushed into Iraq from Syria and routed Baghdad’s troops. After Iraqi and Kurdish forces started pushing toward Mosul on Oct. 17, 2016, the Rivet Joints undoubtedly sprang into action yet again.
An RC-135's full crew can total nearly 30 individuals, including the pilots and navigators, intelligence specialists and repair specialists to fix gear that breaks in the air. Sporting more than a dozens antennas, the jet’s main job is to orbit above or near the battlefield and scoop up enemy communications chatter.
In addition, the analysts on board can pinpoint the source of the transmissions and feed that information to commanders back at base or on the ground. In 2011, the planes got a tactical data link — aka TDL — to better sync up with other forces.
“The RC-135V/W Rivet Joint … served as the primary airborne platform” for the new equipment, according to one Air Force history. The aircraft quickly became “the most capable … TDL system.”
War Is Boring obtained a copy of this annual review through the Freedom of Information Act.
Relying heavily on commercial radios and cell phones with internet access, Islamic State fighters are easy prey for the planes. Zeroing in on the devices can point troops or air strikes at command centers, reinforcements or other important targets.
“They use cellphones, they use push-to-talk radios, they use the internet, send e-mails,” U.S. Army Col. Christopher Garver, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on June 8, 2016. “They’re on the internet … while they’re on the battlefield.”
“So we have gone after communications, cellphone towers.”
On top of just finding the militants, the intelligence analysts can snatch up additional data that might help in future strikes. Not surprisingly, the Pentagon’s routinely scours captured documents and devices and intercepted transmissions for dirt on militants and their activities.
“And sometimes, we identify a system we can listen to or look at and we may not hit that right away because we want to keep using that to gather intelligence,” Garver added. “Just blowing it up right away maybe takes that intelligence away from us.”
And there have been reports that the Rivet Joints can jam enemy signals. In May 2016, an anonymous source told the Daily Mail that British Airseekers — the Royal Air Force name for the Rivet Joint — had secretly zapped Islamic State fighters in Libya.
However, “after speaking with several of my contacts … , I think you may wish to consider the story of the Airseeker as a jammer to be, as the T.V. show Mythbusters says: BUSTED,” Robert Hopkins, a former RC-135 pilot and author, later told aviation journalist David Cenciotti.
“Jamming requires massive amounts of power and power requires massive amounts space and weight, which is just not available on the [Rivet Joint].”
Still, the Rivet Joint’s powerful sensors could possibly direct other, more appropriate aircraft to the right areas. The U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force have all sent purpose-built aircraft to jam Islamic State communications.
Regardless, the RC-135's gear is a powerful addition to the aerial campaign. Shortly after getting the first Airseekers in 2015, the Royal Air Force rushed the specialized planes to the skies over Iraq and Syria.
“Our latest Airseeker plane … will be operational shortly after that in the skies above Iraq and Syria,” British defense secretary Michael Fallon declared on July 21, 2015. “No one, except the U.S., matches our efforts.”
The Air Force’s Rivet Joints are likely to keep giving the Pentagon that edge against Islamic State — or any other enemy that appears in the Middle East — for the foreseeable future.