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January 23, 2007—The US Air Force’s prized electronic intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft just marked 6,000 days of continuous deployment—likely the longest single deployment in Air Force history.

Rivet Joint airmen of the 55th Wing, headquartered at Offutt AFB, Neb., average 3.1 deployments a year on a 60-days-on/60-days-off cycle. Operating from an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia as an expeditionary squadron—whose members are known as the “Sundawgs”—the wing has logged 6,000 consecutive days, counting from Aug. 9, 1990 for Operation Desert Shield to Jan. 11, 2007 for current war on terror operations.

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“That’s 16 and a half years that this wing has, day in and day out without a break, provided winning combat operations in the Middle East,” said Brig. Gen. Jonathan George, 55th Wing commander, during a special ceremony at Offutt on Jan. 11.

Each Rivet Joint usually comprises 34 crewmembers—nine aircrew and 25 mission crew—serving as the “eyes and ears in the sky” for ground forces. The mission crewmembers use the sophisticated on-board sensors—ranged floor-to-ceiling and nearly end-to-end—to detect, identify, and trace signals throughout the electromagnetic spectrum, and then transfer the data using the aircraft’s extensive communications suite.

The vintage aircraft (a militarized version of the Boeing 707) has received numerous upgrades over its 40-plus years, including replacement of its small, 30-year-old engines and its original round-dial cockpit gauges. The small engines and 1970s-style analog gauges are history now, replaced with larger, turbofan engines and TV-like automated avionics. Moreover, the platform’s mission components require nearly constant upgrades to remain relevant. (See “Technology Drives Rivet Joint.”) Just last summer, Northrop Grumman flight tested its new LN-120G stellar navigation system, a GPS-based system that tracks stars to help refine the Rivet Joint’s inertial navigation system data to more accurately pinpoint targets before passing the information to E-8 Joint STARS ground radar aircraft and then on to fighters.

Capt, Guy Perrow, an RC-135 aircraft commander, recalls what it was like to deploy with the Rivet Joint before all the upgrades. “When I began flying this aircraft, the round-dial system was entirely manual and analog, requiring one to read between the lines and mentally picture the entire flight plan from a God’s-eye view using the data presented. With the new glass equipment, we’re able to accurately display our position, timing, and other information that has aided in our situational awareness.”

Most Rivet Joint personnel remain with the aircraft their entire careers and have seen that, as the mission systems changed, so did the aircraft’s operating mode. One officer, Lt. Col. Mike Kelly, had just become a first lieutenant and was the youngest of three electronic combat officers in his unit when he deployed with the second Rivet Joint to Saudi Arabia at the beginning of Operation Desert Shield in 1990. He recalls: “The previous year, the Rivet Joint had really broken new ground integrating with combat air forces [during exercises]. … Threat radar locations and enemy situation were being passed to friendly aircraft in near real time. This type of direct integration was a revolutionary change from the slow, formalized reporting that normally took days or even weeks.”

Another long-time RJ airman, Lt. Col. Doug Sachs, notes: “The value of the RC-135 Rivet Joint as an intelligence-gathering platform was proven during Desert Storm. Since then, the aircraft has transitioned from a Cold War asset to an important part of our modern terrorist-fighting force.”

MSgt. Denny Nichols, an airborne mission supervisor who has served on Rivet Joints for some 20 years, has seen the aircraft and its mission go from “highly sensitive” during Gulf War I to one that today works openly with a variety of other assets and services. Nichols says, “We can actually get out there and give information directly to the folks who need it and they know who we are now.” 

The Rivet Joint crews—air, mission, and maintenance—deploy to SWA from 55th Wing units at Offutt AFB, Neb., RAF Mildenhall, Britain, and Kadena AB, Japan, averaging three deployments per year. In addition to its specialized mission crew, Rivet Joint requires highly trained mechanics for both the platform and its mission equipment.

Each of the wing’s 17 RC-135 is unique, according to its platform mechanics. SSgt. Steven Lantz calls them “moody,” adding, “Every jet has its own characteristics.” On one it may be a constantly leaking fuel cell or one that “always flies without any discrepancies.” In SWA, it may take the ground crew two hours or 10 hours to recover an aircraft after a sortie, depending on whether its needs little work or an overhaul. The aircraft suffer a lot of stress just from landings because of the weight of its electronics—nearly 40 tons.

Maintaining the electronics requires its own expertise. Mission computer technicians need almost two years to reach full qualification, meaning they can perform 146 core tasks.

According to wing commander George, some 10,000 airmen have served the Rivet Joint mission in Southwest Asia, providing an “unbroken chain of success.”