These U.S. National Guard Spy Planes Have Flown All Over the World
Senior Scout turned C-130 cargo planes into part-time spooks
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On Jun. 8, 2004, an American spy plane took off from Karshi-Khanaba Air Base — aka K2 — in Uzbekistan and began making its way toward Afghanistan. Rather than one of the regular Air Force’s iconic Cold War-era U-2 Dragon Lady or an airliner-sized RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, the crew of Air National Guardsmen from Utah and Nevada were at the controls of a specially modified C-130 Hercules cargo plane.
The plane’s cargo bay was packed with an intelligence system nicknamed Senior Scout. With the gear on board, the airlifter became a part-time spook, able to find, listen in on and record enemy communications down below.
“On that day, as on most of its missions, the crew supported the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit,” according to one Air National Guard history. “The Senior Scout established contact with the Marines only to find them surrounded by more than 120 anti-coalition militia.”
As reinforcements rushed to the scene, the intelligence analysts flying above found and kept tabs on the insurgents by tracking their radio chatter. The crew repeatedly relayed that information to the American troops on the ground throughout the firefight.
“When asked if the Senior Scout crew provided essential support, the Marines responded, ‘Hell, yes!,’” the history added.
Though Senior Scout first entered service in 1990, the activities of larger and better known spy planes continually overshadowed its operations. Thanks to a number of documents War Is Boring obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we know the National Guard’s aerial spies hunted for militants, drug traffickers and other enemy forces around the world for more than two decades.
Technically, the term Senior Scout refers only to the intelligence gear itself. The Air Force designed the system so crews could install it on any C-130E — and eventually H and J models, too — within 48 hours.
The kit includes control stations and other equipment packed inside a container that fits inside a Hercules’ main cargo compartment. Technicians also replace the landing gear bay and rear cabin doors with special versions bristling with antennas.
Those antennas are one of the few visible indicators a Hercules has the system on board. The Pentagon sometimes refers to planes carrying the Senior Scout system as EC-130s or RC-130s, but these names are unofficial.
In 1989, the Air Force began working on the setup as a replacement for older C-130-based spy planes in the Air National Guard. By 2001, the Utah Air National Guard’s 169th Intelligence Squadron was responsible for keeping all three of the “shelters” and associated equipment working and training crews to operate the gear.
The unit kept two of the kits ready to go at all times, with the third in reserve in case of a break down or accident. Despite making a trip to the Middle East during the first Persian Gulf War, Senior Scout’s primary job was hunting drug smugglers throughout Latin America.
Members of the 169th would volunteer to run the Senior Scout gear during the overseas assignments, according to one unclassified background paper. Other regular Air Force and Air National Guard units would supply the C-130s.
In addition, the planes often carried a so-called “host nation rider,” a government representative from the country the plane was snooping in, who served as a contact between local authorities and the American fliers. The crews could quickly relay any information they grabbed “to partner nations for their use in interdicting these activities” through these individuals, according to the backgrounder.
For at least 20 years, C-130s with Senior Scout routinely flew from bases in countries such as Ecuador, El Salvador, Panama and Colombia, often working alongside other American military and law enforcement units and private contractors. In 2011, the modified cargo haulers joined U.S. Navy E-2 radar planes and Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk drones in Colombia, according to an annual historical review.
According to a series of now partially declassified Air Force histories, the service gave these missions colorful nicknames, such as Beach Pavon and Palmetto Pavon, depending on where the planes were flying. A typical flight might last up to 10 hours, an official airborne reconnaissance “brain book” noted.
But as the America’s Global War on Terror rapidly expanded, demand spiked throughout the Pentagon for intelligence information and spy planes of any kind to get it, including Senior Scout. The 2004 mission over Afghanistan was just one example.
By 2009, Senior Scouts were scooping up communications chatter in Latin America, Afghanistan and unspecified countries in Africa — possibly including the “Horn of Africa,” generally considered a reference to counter-terrorism efforts in Somalia. In Afghanistan alone, the Air Force had at least two separate mission sets, dubbed Celtic Duty and Celtic Pavon.
The service creatively nicknamed the African overflights Rhino Duty and Rhino Pavon. If it wasn’t already apparent, the words “duty” and “pavon” appear to be directly linked to Senior Scout operations.
With all these missions, strain on the Senior Scout teams — and other C-130-based spy planes elsewhere in the Air National Guard — became so severe the Air Force briefly considered creating an entirely new unit to oversee everything. Those in favor of the plan felt having a single headquarters in charge of the various types of intelligence gear and a fleet of C-130s specifically set aside to carry them would make maintenance and logistics issues easier.
“In the past, this had not been a problem,” a 2008 Air Force history explained. But the Global War on Terrorism and the Latin American operations “had tasked the C-130-based … assets to the limit.”
On top of that, the Pentagon was interested in sending Senior Scout and the other cargo plane-cum-flying spies out into the Pacific. As the debate raged on, the similar, but significantly bigger RC-135V/W spy planes were searching for terrorists in the Philippines, monitoring North Korea and patrolling the South China Sea, among other missions.
But the top Air Force brass wasn’t convinced about the idea. Instead, the service’s top headquarters in Washington put together a team to examine issue, according to the 2008 review.
By 2010, plans for this “RC-130 Wing” appeared to have evaporated. But the Seniors Scouts still made their way out into the Pacific and still found time for the existing missions.
The next year, the Air Force worked to improve the gear’s ability to transmit information back to base and to troops on the ground. “To take advantage of its expanded capabilities,” engineers installed the same data link software found on Rivet Joints onto the smaller Senior Scout systems, according to yet another annual history.
Despite near constant service for more than two decades, during the 2013 fiscal year, the 169th suffered “uncertainty regarding the unit’s primary mission of Senior Scout and a stand-down in Senior Scout deployments,” according to a report from the Utah National Guard. Instead, the unit sent intelligence personnel out to help with other missions.
They did keep proficient with the Senior Scout equipment and made sure they were ready to go if necessary. As of August 2014, an official manual said the crews were still eligible for the Air Force’s Gen. Jerome O’Malley Award for Airborne Reconnaissance.
But with conflicts still raging in the Middle East, Africa and other hot spots, the Pentagon probably isn’t eager to completely retire the special kits for good.